Towards the Heart of Germany
The Mons Pocket
At the end of August 1944 the Allied armies were like knights of old who set out in quest of the Holy Grail but were not averse to slaying dragons and rescuing damsels in distress along the way. The Allies desired the Channel ports to assuage their logistical aches; the Pas-de-Calais coastal area to neutralize the German V-weapons; the liberation of northwest France, Belgium, and the Netherlands; and the destruction of the enemy forces remaining between the Seine and Germany. But their fundamental objective was the Rhine River.1 (See Map XV.)
Some Allied commanders believed that an immediate crossing of the Rhine would lead to quick capture of the Ruhr. The apparently disintegrating German military organization then would collapse and carry with it a tottering German political structure. That would be the end of the war.2 As the First Army G-2 put it:
Critical situations on the Western and Eastern front, in the Balkans, in Finland, and in German industry, particularly oil, must deprive any sane German of the last vestiges of hope. The only important question is how long it will take the vast majority of Germans in and out of the military forces, who can accept surrender to the Allies without fear of death or dishonor, to overthrow the elaborate and powerful system of control exercised by the relatively few for whom surrender means death as criminals and who will naturally choose to fight so long as there is one brave or fanatical German soldier between them and the enemy.3
Threatened also by the Soviet advance in the east, which had come to within one hundred and fifty miles of the German border, the Germans no longer seemed to have sufficient forces to make a stand anywhere short of the West Wall—or Siegfried Line, as the Allies called it. A complex of permanent-type fortifications of varying strength and depth along the western frontier of Germany, the West Wall extended from the Dutch border near Kleve to Switzerland north of Basle. To the Allies, the only sound military strategy for the Germans seemed to be to rush repairs on these fortifications and immediately withdraw from France to them, using delaying action to retard the Allied advance.4
On the basis of this estimate, the overriding Allied goal became the desire to reach the Rhine before the Germans could organize an effective defense at the West Wall. The West Wall was no longer the impressive shield it had once been. The Germans had neglected and partially dismantled it after their victories in 1940. They had stripped most of its armament for use at the Atlantic Wall. Its works had fallen into disrepair, and no appreciable number of troops manned the line in the summer of 1944. Yet the West Wall remained an important psychological barrier for both the Germans and the Allies.5 If the Allies could reach it before the Germans could man it (either with troops retreating from Normandy or with others already in Germany), the Allies would probably be able to get through to the Rhine with little difficulty. The pursuit east of the Seine was thus to display some of the aspects of a race.6
Though the Albert Canal and Meuse River formed a natural obstacle favorable for defense far in front of the West Wall, it hardly seemed possible that the remnants of the Seventh Army, the defeated Fifth Panzer Army, and the shrunken Fifteenth Army, all located in the northwest portion of France, in Belgium, and in the Netherlands, could re-establish a stable front short of the German border. Only the overstrained Allied supply lines might stop a rapid Allied advance. In the face of the glowing opportunity for continued pursuit of disorganized forces, the Allies decided to keep moving as long as possible. The armies were to "go as far as practicable," General Bradley announced, "and then wait until the supply system in rear will permit further advance."7 The hope was to get at least through the West Wall to the Rhine.
If the German high command had anything to be thankful for, as OB WEST staff members later recalled, it was that the Allies failed to conduct an immediate and ruthless exploitation of the Seine River crossing at Mantes-Gassicourt by an enveloping movement along the east bank of the Seine to Le Havre. That kind of maneuver, the Germans thought, would have led to the complete destruction of the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies and would have created an irreparable gap between the Fifteenth and First Armies. The path to the northeast--to Germany--would have been undefended, and further resistance in France would have been futile. Since the Allies had not elected this course, the Germans continued to fall back toward the Schelde estuary, the Albert Canal, and the Meuse River, trying to maintain a fairly orderly withdrawal in the hope that a continuous front might be re-established there. The ports of
Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkerque, about to be isolated, were to be held in compliance with Hitler's fortress policy directed against Allied logistics.
If the Germans could maintain a defensive line at the Schelde, Albert, and Meuse, they would retain the Netherlands and its naval bases, air warning service, and food and war production; they would deny the Allies the port of Antwerp, preserve the territorial integrity of Germany, and protect the Saar and the Ruhr. Most important, they would gain time to repair and rearm the West Wall.8
The troops extricated from Normandy west of the Seine and those in the Pas-de-Calais tried to maintain a cohesive front close to the northern coast of France. Screening their landward flank with mobile units, they hoped by delaying action to blunt Allied spearheads thrusting into that flank and thereby to gain time to reach the Schelde-Albert-Meuse line. German commanders insisted that the Allied pursuit was hesitant and that orderly resistance could be successful despite inferiority in strength and resources. Yet congested roads, traffic bottlenecks, an insufficient number of bridges and ferries, the fatigue of continuous movement, Allied strafing from the air, and the lack of information on the general situation created a depressing feeling of defeat.9
Model was no longer master of the Army Group B situation. With hope of holding at the Somme-Marne River line shattered, he found himself issuing futile orders that were out of date before the disorganized units received them. The Fifteenth Army, in precarious command of the Channel ports, was in danger of being cut off and isolated. The Fifth Panzer Army, which had moved inland to take command of the bulk of the remaining armor, was unable to hold around Soissons. The Seventh Army had scarcely begun to resurrect its ghost divisions at the Somme when it lost its commander, Eberbach, who was taken prisoner on 31 August. Unable to form a cohesive battle line, Model by 3 September saw no course open except withdrawal to the West Wall. The Germans had been routed and whatever resistance occurred was to a large extent the product of individual initiative on the lower echelons.10
Whether the Germans in northwest France could withdraw more quickly than the Allies could advance was the important question. To the Allies, the answer seemed negative on the basis of comparative motorization alone. More precise indications were also available. The XIX Corps on the First Army left seemed to have outraced enemy forces that were apparently moving eastward in an attempt to block the Allied pursuit.11 Various Resistance groups in northern France were of the opinion that the Germans did not have enough men, matériel, and mobility to establish and hold a strong defensive line anywhere short of the West Wall.12 Despite
weather conditions that prevented extensive air reconnaissance during the last days of August, Allied pilots noted large German groups in various stages of disorganization drifting east and northeast across the First U.S. Army front--more than a hundred enemy armored vehicles near St. Quentin, more than three hundred miscellaneous vehicles clogging the road net northeast of Amiens. By 1 September only a few German tanks remained on the Second British Army front.13
Recognizing that the Germans could hope to organize resistance only at the Albert-Meuse line, General Bradley temporarily shifted his sights from the Rhine River in favor of a maneuver to block the German retreat and eliminate the major part of the German forces in France. To accomplish this, Bradley decided to turn the army from a northeasterly direction to the north. Hodges' troops, by racing across the Franco-Belgian border to cut the Lille-Brussels highway, might sever the escape routes of approximately two panzer and eight to ten infantry divisions that appeared to be west of a north-south line from Laon to Mons, Belgium.14
This projected advance resembled the third envelopment that earlier Patton had tentatively planned east of the Seine. In effect the maneuver would reinstate the earlier boundary line that had been drawn by Montgomery and then changed at Bradley's request. At the conclusion of its northward drive, the First U.S. Army would have compressed the British and Canadians into a narrow zone ending at the Schelde estuary. The British and Canadians would then be facing out toward the sea. Apparently without consulting higher headquarters, General Bradley ordered General Hodges to execute the maneuver.
The most important objective of the shift in direction was the city of Tournai, Belgium, and during the afternoon of 31 August the First Army G-3, Brig. Gen. Truman C. Thorson, arrived at Corlett's XIX Corps headquarters to outline the new plan. Instead of driving through Montdidier and Peronne and turning gently eastward toward Mons, Corlett was to go north beyond Peronne to Tournai, a hundred miles ahead of the corps' leading units, and then north to Ghent, forty miles farther. The immediate objective, Tournai, was to be taken within forty-eight hours--at the latest by midnight, 2 September.15
The precise deadline for reaching Tournai reflected additional motives. General Bradley thought that the British would advance less rapidly than the Americans and that the Germans holding Tournai would consequently constitute a threat to the First Army left flank. More important, an airborne operation was scheduled to take place at Tournai against General Bradley's wishes. Bradley had consistently opposed the use of airborne troops during the pursuit because he believed that ground forces alone could gain distant objectives and
because he felt that available aircraft would be better employed to bring supplies to the ground units rather than to transport airborne troops. Overruled by Eisenhower, Bradley had warned that ground units would secure the Tournai drop zones before airborne troops could land there. To insure the correctness of his prediction, he ordered General Hodges to get the XIX Corps to Tournai despite the fact that Tournai was within the British army zone.16
General Hodges was under another impression. He thought that the reason why Bradley wanted additional speed on the different axis was his desire to link up with the paratroopers scheduled to drop on 3 September.17
To get to the Belgian border in the short time allowed, Corlett used all his available trucks, chiefly of artillery and antiaircraft units, to motorize two regiments of the 79th Division and one of the 30th--this in addition to the organic transportation that enabled each infantry division to motorize one regimental combat team. With the 2d Armored Division leading two almost completely motorized infantry divisions, the XIX Corps set forth to bypass resistance and make night marches if necessary in order to reach Tournai at the appointed hour. "Get a good night's sleep and don't worry," the armored commander, General Brooks, advised Corlett, "it's in the bag." Nearby, the excited corps chief of staff exclaimed, "Hot pursuit!"18
Col. John H. Collier's CCA of the 2d Armored Division crossed the Somme early on 1 September after bypassing a pocket of resistance at Montdidier, which the 79th Division soon eliminated, and on 2 September--two hours before the midnight deadline--reached Tournai. While a regiment of the 30th took the city, both infantry divisions assembled in the objective area around midnight. General White's CCB arrived after a two and a half hour engagement with an enemy column that resulted in the destruction of 96 German vehicles and 28 guns. The Reserve had just enough gasoline to reach the objective but instead assembled about ten miles short of it to keep a small supply of fuel on hand for emergencies. Except for these two instances of resistance, the corps had advanced against only the faintest kind of opposition.19 Even destroyed bridges had failed to slow the rate of advance. In keeping with procedure that had become standard, engineers laid a treadway bridge first, then built a Bailey bridge nearby. When the Bailey was completed, the traffic was diverted to it, and the treadway was pulled up for the next crossing.
American incursion into the British zone had begun to look like a habit, and one of General Montgomery's aides visited Corlett on the afternoon of 2 September to protest. Montgomery wanted XIX Corps halted short of Tournai so that American troops would not interfere with the British advance, but it was too late to stop the columns. When Hodges informed Corlett later in the evening that a change in plans made
a halt necessary, the leading troops were virtually on the objective.20
The XIX Corps halted at Tournai, as much because the units were out of gasoline as because of orders. While British troops, who had reached the vicinity of Tournai shortly after the Americans, swept beyond, XIX Corps processed a disappointing total of only 1,300 prisoners. A small captured barge loaded with German gasoline enabled reconnaissance units to mop up the area. Meanwhile, Corlett waited for further instructions and gasoline supplies.
The Tournai airborne operation had in the meantime been canceled. Awakened at daybreak on 3 September by a complaint from Montgomery that American troops were blocking the roads at Tournai, Bradley was satisfied that they had also blocked the airborne drop.21 General Eisenhower had tentatively decided on 2 September to cancel the operation on the announced theory that the purpose of the drop--to bar German escape routes to the east--had been achieved by ground action. After conferring with Montgomery, the Supreme Commander confirmed his decision. In the meantime, the commander of the First Allied Airborne Army, General Brereton, had announced poor weather conditions as the official reason for canceling the drop.22
Like XIX Corps, V Corps had received instructions to advance north. It was to cut the Lille-Brussels highway at Leuze (ten miles east of Tournai) and Ath. Using artillery, tank destroyer, antiaircraft, and engineer transportation facilities, General Gerow formed provisional truck companies to motorize his infantry.23 With the 4th Division, reinforced by a 5th Armored Division combat command, in the lead, and the remainder of the armor and the 28th Division following, V Corps accelerated its pace on the evening of 31 August. The corps advanced continuously until the morning of 2 September when, in the vicinity of Landrecies, about twenty miles short of the border, most of the units ran out of gasoline. Gerow received word from Hodges later in the day to remain on the Cambrai--Landrecies line, but his order to halt did not reach all the elements of the 5th Armored Division. By afternoon of the 3d, CCB was about eight miles south of Leuze, and its reconnaissance elements were on the final objective. The only resistance, encountered near Landrecies, had been overcome without difficulty. Relatively few prisoners were taken.24
Although most bridges in the V Corps zone had been destroyed by the Germans, a few had been seized intact and
a few had been saved by FFI action. Piles of destroyed German equipment along the roads attested to the accurate fire from Allied aircraft. Ground troops sometimes had to use bulldozers to clear paths through the wreckage and the dead horses, from which hungry civilians had already cut steaks.25
The VII Corps, on the army right, had also received orders on 31 August to change direction. Instead of driving northeastward from Montcornet and Rethel toward Namur and Liège, Collins was ordered to turn north and drive through the towns of Avesnes, Maubeuge, and Mons. General Collins' first concern was for the gap that would develop on the right between his corps and the Third Army. When he asked Hodges who was to fill the gap, he learned that that was his own problem. Though Collins thought at first that he would have to leave a division behind for the purpose, he decided instead to cover the gap with the 4th Cavalry Group, reinforced by a battalion each of light tanks, motorized artillery, tank destroyers, and infantry, three Engineer companies, and a platoon of a Medical collecting company. Even though he had been diverted to the north to trap Germans, Collins still had his eyes fixed on the West Wall. Anxious to continue northeastward across the Meuse, he instructed the 4th Cavalry not only to maintain contact with Patton but also to seize a Meuse bridgehead near M&ecute;zières. Meanwhile, he swerved the 3d Armored Division--which was moving toward Sedan and Charleville--onto new roads to the north toward Hirson and Vervins.
The 9th Division was to protect the right flank; the 1st Division was to come up on the left to reinforce the armor.26
The 3d Armored Division drove due north on the highway through Vervins, and by nightfall of 2 September spearheads were approaching Mons. Hodges, who had notified Corlett and Gerow on 1 September that there was talk of swinging eastward again toward the Rhine, was unable to reach Collins by telephone that day. Thus, he did not transmit news that might have acted as a brake on the VII Corps drive to the north. On 2 September Hodges received instructions to "curl up" the VII Corps short of Mons and hold because of gasoline shortages. But again he was unable to get word to the leading elements of the corps. On the morning of 3 September the 3d Armored Division took firm possession of Mons. Yet armored columns were strung out for twenty-five miles behind, as far back as Avesnes. By that time the 9th Division on the east flank had moved to Charleroi, and 1st Division units were pushing into Avesnes, on the tail of the armored units.27
The apparent absence of enemy forces in the Avesnes-Mons area was deceptive. In reality the First Army maneuver initiated on the last day of August had not been in vain. Though the comparatively few prisoners taken by XIX and V Corps indicated that the Germans had escaped those northward thrusts, increasing
contact with German troops along the Avesnes-Mons line indicated that many Germans had not evaded VII Corps.
Thousands of Germans were in fact moving into the area southwest of Mons, generally along the axis of the Amiens-Cambrai-Mons highway. While the 3d Armored Division set up a line of north-south roadblocks along the Avesnes-Mons road to cut further German movement toward the northeast, the 1st Division attacked northwest from Avesnes into a confused and milling mass of retreating enemy. Blocked on the east by the 3d Armored Division, pushed on the west by the XIX Corps near Valenciennes, hemmed in on the south from Cambrai to Landrecies by the V Corps, about to be cut off on the north by the British advance beyond Tournai, and jabbed on the southeast by the 1st Division, a large, amorphous enemy group was pocketed.
Many of the troops trapped near Mons belonged to three corps--the LVIII Panzer, the II SS, and the LXXIV-- that had earlier been under the control of Fifth Panzer Army. Near St. Quentin on the last day of August, the three corps headquarters had been out of contact with any higher command. Without instructions from above, the three commanders conferred and decided to form a provisional army among themselves. Straube, the LXXIV Corps commander, assumed command of the other two corps, while his staff began to function as the provisional army headquarters.
Straube was completely in the dark on what was happening outside his immediate area but, from Allied radio broadcasts and from meager reports occasionally delivered by subordinate headquarters, he estimated that the provisional army was in imminent danger of encirclement. Deciding to withdraw to an area that was naturally suited to a defensive effort, he chose the canal and marsh region near Mons. Since he realized that the faster-moving Americans still might encircle the troops of the three corps, who for the most part traveled on foot, he started an immediate well-planned and well-organized movement.
The main units that Straube controlled were remnants of the 3d Parachute Division, "almost insignificant in numbers"; the 6th Parachute Division, which had a strength of about two infantry battalions plus a few heavy-caliber weapons; the 18th Luftwaffe Field Division, in one-battalion strength; and two infantry divisions that were "hardly useful." Around these forces had gathered fragmentary units, stragglers, depot personnel, and a host of miscellaneous troops. Harassed from the air, ambushed by Resistance groups, attacked by Allied spearheads, finally encircled near Mons, the provisional army, with little ammunition, fuel, or communications, blundered into American roadblocks and upon contact was thrown into confusion.28
During the night, for example, a German half-tracked vehicle stumbled on a Sherman tank installed as a road obstacle. Other American tanks nearby opened fire down a straight stretch of road. When an early round set a German vehicle ablaze, illuminating others, it was "like shooting sitting pigeons." At daybreak tankers of the 3d Armored Division discovered that they had destroyed a column a mile long. During the ensuing confusion, when Medical Corps
personnel captured a German general, it "did not seem at all unusual."29 Pfc. Gino J. Merli of the 18th Infantry, who feigned death when his machine gun section was overrun, remained at this weapon throughout the night; at dawn more than fifty enemy dead were found nearby.30 The encircled Germans, who had been thinking of flight, were in no mood to fight, and only a few, including headquarters personnel of the LVIII Panzer and II SS Corps, escaped. On the afternoon of 3 September alone, the 3d Armored and 1st Divisions took between 7,500 and 9,000 prisoners. The IX Tactical Air Command claimed the destruction of 851 motor vehicles, 50 armored vehicles, 652 horse-drawn vehicles, and 485 persons.31 In three days about 25,000 prisoners were taken, remnants of twenty disorganized divisions. These potential defenders of the West Wall were thus swept off the field of battle.32
The head-on encounter at Mons was, from the tactical point of view, a surprise for both sides. Neither Americans nor Germans had been aware of the approach of the other, and both had stumbled into an unforeseen meeting that resulted in a short, impromptu battle.33
While American troops were sweeping Germans into prisoner of war compounds, the plans for future action were again being changed. Part of the reason was the desire to correct a hundred-mile gap between the First and Third Armies, but the underlying basis for the change was a belief that practically no external conditions would interfere with an Allied drive to and across the Rhine.
Broad Front versus Narrow
On 1 September, at the height of the accelerated American pursuit, SHAEF became operational on the Continent with headquarters in the Cotentin near Granville. General Eisenhower, in addition to exercising the Supreme Command, assumed personal command of the ground forces, thereby replacing the pro tem commander, Field Marshal Montgomery.34 The change in the command structure brought the Allied organization to full flower. The British Second Tactical Air Force, with headquarters on the Continent, was from this point on to be associated with the 21 Army Group. The Ninth U.S. Air Force, also established on the Continent, was to assist the 12th Army Group, as well as the 6th Army Group in southern France, which was to become operational under the control of SHAEF two weeks later.35
The alteration in the command of the ground forces had long been planned. In anticipation that General Eisenhower would take control of the land warfare beyond the Seine, General Montgomery had made his plans for the advance beyond the Seine on the basis that he would direct only those forces on the routes north of the Ardennes.36 General Bradley had done the same for Patton's subsidiary drive south of the Ardennes.
Though General Eisenhower sought to take effective control of all ground action, it was difficult to accomplish, not only because SHAEF was far from the front but also because signal facilities were in short supply. General Eisenhower had foreseen the problem as early as 19 August, when he had dictated for the record:
Obviously, communications from the senior fighting commanders to their divisions on the front took precedence over the establishment of communications for SHAEF headquarters. Our woeful insufficiency in Signal troops has made it impossible, as yet, to provide for me on the Continent a headquarters which would permit me to discharge all the responsibilities devolving upon me and at the same time take over the broad operational coordination necessary between Army Groups. Even now, with all available US signal units allocated to Bradley, his communications with Patton are ordinarily limited to radio telephone or laborious code, and to his rear they are no better. . . .
. . . the very signal units I need have had to be given to Bradley so that he could keep in even sketchy contact with the rapidly changing situation.
Some time ago I ordered my staff to be ready to function on the Continent September 1st. I still hope to make that date, although it is much earlier than any of the technicians believed it could be done.37
It was nevertheless done although, during the next few weeks, it would seem that immediate and firm direction and control were sometimes lacking.
To SHAEF at this time the hostile army appeared to be "no longer a cohesive force but a number of fugitive battle groups, disorganized and even demoralized, short of equipment and arms." The German strategic situation presented signs of so much deterioration that recovery no longer seemed possible. Political upheaval within Germany or insurrection within the Army seemed likely to hasten the end of the war.38
The success of the subsidiary Allied invasion of western Europe by way of southern France underscored the apparent hopelessness of the German situation. The DRAGOON forces, primarily American and French, had had little difficulty in landing in southern France west of Cannes on 15 August and in driving up the Rhone valley. SHAEF had estimated that DRAGOON would have no direct effect on OVERLORD until the forces from the Mediterranean moved well over three hundred miles to Dijon, and that this was hardly to be expected before November.39 Yet at the end of August, in addition to having captured the major port of Marseille, the Allied forces in southern France were approaching
Lyon, little more than a hundred miles short of Dijon.40 Since German withdrawal all along the Western Front made the juncture of OVERLORD and DRAGOON forces foreseeable in the near future, an Allied coup de grâce seemed in order. How to deliver the coup became the subject of much discussion in early September.
The discussion was an outgrowth of differences apparent as early as 19 August, when General Eisenhower had decided to cross the Seine and initiate pursuit operations without waiting for a more secure logistical basis. He had then thought of following the preinvasion plan of splitting his forces equally to make a dual thrust toward the Ruhr by routes north and south of the Ardennes. General Montgomery, in contrast, had favored a single drive north of the Ardennes directly toward the Ruhr. The result in late August had been a compromise that leaned toward Montgomery's point of view. Three armies carried the main effort north of the Ardennes, while Patton's Third Army, making the subsidiary effort, had had its gasoline supplies curtailed.41
On 2 September, as Eisenhower met with Bradley, Hodges, and Patton, he reinstituted what later came to be called the broad-front strategy. Hoping to keep the enemy stretched so that he would be unable to organize an effective defense at the West Wall, General Eisenhower allocated gasoline stocks to the Third Army just as Hodges' First Army was running out of gas at the Belgian border and sent both U.S. armies toward the Rhine. Patton was to advance toward Mannheim and Frankfurt; Hodges was to shift from his northward course-- which pointed across the British routes of advance in Belgium--to an eastward axis toward Koblenz and Cologne. To cover the gap that had opened between the First and Third Armies, Hodges was to send one corps through the Ardennes, a route not recommended by the preinvasion planners.42
At this particular moment, Dempsey's Second British Army was in the midst of a spectacular advance. Having crossed the Somme River at Amiens on 31 August and again between Amiens and Abbeville on 1 September against disorganized resistance, British armor drove into the industrial region of northern France. Outflanking Arras, bypassing Lille, moving through Douai and Tournai, armored spearheads swept across the Belgian border and took Brussels, Antwerp, and Ghent on 3, 4, and 5 September, respectively. With three armored divisions in the lead and with infantry mopping up, the British advanced 250 miles in six days to the Albert Canal between Antwerp and Hasselt.
Crerar's First Canadian Army had similar success. Moving out of the Rouen bridgehead on the last day of August, armor began pursuit action while infantry turned to the ports. Infantrymen took Dieppe and le Tréport on 1 September and St. Valery-en-Caux the following day. While the 1 British Corps swung toward Le Havre, the 2d
Canadian Corps moved through the coastal belt, invested Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkerque, and took Ostend by 9 September. Armored troops had meanwhile crossed the Somme River near Abbeville on 2 September and driven toward Belgium. Held up briefly by resistance near Bruges, the mobile elements were at the Belgian-Dutch border and within striking distance of the Schelde estuary by the second week in September. The Canadians had overrun the flying bomb launching sites in the Pas-de-Calais by 6 September, although the Germans began two days later to fire V-weapons from the Netherlands and continued to do so until almost the end of the war.43
Impressed by the development of the pursuit and particularly by the capture of Brussels and Antwerp on 3 and 4 September, Field Marshal Montgomery began to believe that the Germans in the west were so weak as to be incapable of withstanding a major Allied effort. He concluded that the war could be ended at once by a thrust launched immediately to Berlin via the Ruhr. He proposed to the Supreme Commander on 4 September that all the Allied resources available on the Continent be allocated for this drive, a strong single thrust that General Eisenhower later misunderstood to be "pencillike."44
General Eisenhower, who had two days earlier made it possible for Patton to resume operations and who had thereby instituted a broad-front movement, justified his course of action, which was more cautious than Montgomery's, by a reasoned statement. Eisenhower did not believe that the Allies could support a drive to Berlin, and he thought that the Allies first needed to attain the successive objectives of breaching the West Wall, crossing the Rhine on a wide front, and seizing the Ruhr and the Saar. An advance on the entire front, he argued, would compel the Germans to stretch their meager forces to the breaking point and would imperil the rear of the Army Group G forces retreating from southern France. He also thought it desirable to keep Patton moving because he wanted the Allies to take advantage of all existing lines of communication. If, however, Montgomery needed additional assistance, Eisenhower was willing to give him SHAEF's strategic reserve, the Allied airborne army, which could help Montgomery seize crossings over the Rhine, help him make a deep advance into the Ruhr, and enable him even to threaten Berlin. The only factor, he said, that limited optimism for future operations and ruled out what he interpreted as Montgomery's proposal for a thin thrust to Berlin was logistics, already "stretched to the limit."45
It was just the logistical situation that made Montgomery feel that the Allies could afford only one effort. He wanted it to be a strong effort, and he believed that it should be aimed through the Ruhr and toward Berlin.46
Yet SHAEF judged Montgomery's suggestion too optimistic. Eisenhower provided him additional support, particularly in locomotives and rolling stock, but he refused to allay Montgomery's basic dissatisfaction over what Montgomery considered an unrealistic Allied dispersion of effort. During early September Eisenhower continued to allocate fuel supplies on a broad-front basis. Bradley managed to keep an uneasy gasoline balance between the two U.S. armies, his principal motive apparently the desire to keep Patton moving. With Hodges oriented toward Cologne, Bonn, and Koblenz, and Patton toward Mannheim and Mainz, and, if possible, Karlsruhe, it was clear that General Eisenhower preferred to use all the routes toward Germany, good and bad alike.47
The Nature of the Pursuit
The Allied advance toward the West Wall was spectacularly fast and fluid. It operated with a minimum of control and a maximum reliance on subordinate commanders. Unit dislocations, changing routes of advance, and an overriding fluidity resulted. When gasoline stocks permitted, the pursuit resembled a stampede of wild horses. The dust that was kicked up did not obscure the fact that a mass Allied movement east of the Seine took place, a gigantic and sometimes haphazard closing action of all available forces toward Germany in which a frantic search for a bridge still intact was often the most significant detail. "There have been so many changes in the First Army direction," an observer wrote, "that indeed it seems at times as if those 'on top' did not have an altogether clear and consistent conception of the direction from which they wish to cross the German frontier."48
Thinly spread, both laterally and in depth, the armies overran and liberated northern France, most of Belgium and Luxembourg, and parts of the Netherlands. Reconnaissance units and cavalry swept far and wide, clearing great areas, particularly on the flanks, to free infantry and armor for advance along the main highways. Various patriotic groups were helpful.49 Local Resistance members usually appeared soon after the arrival of American troops in a town, and they quickly formed into units and marched out to clear the countryside of German stragglers and to guard bridges and lines of communication. Individuals sometimes accompanied Allied reconnaissance units. Civilians cleared a number of obstacles, in at least one case repairing a destroyed bridge before the arrival of Engineer troops. Engineer support platoons often accompanied cavalry ahead of the main body of troops to remove obstacles before they could delay the advance. The artillery was usually unable to displace fast enough to get into action, and even the light artillery did comparatively little firing.50
There was only sporadic contact with the enemy along the fronts of the on-rushing armies. Only in a few instances did the Germans try to make a stand, usually at river-crossing sites. The inadequacy of the German forces, their lack of communications, their drastic shortages of equipment, and what seemed to be command confusion on the lower levels led to the abandonment of any pretense of re-establishing a line anywhere except at the West Wall. Occasional roadblocks (usually no more than several felled trees), a few destroyed bridges, and feeble rear-guard action characterized the opposition. A typical rear guard was composed of a small group of infantry and perhaps one or two tanks or mobile guns stationed at a town or road center until direct pressure or an outflanking move prompted withdrawal. Resistance was spotty and without consistent plan. Many bridges were abandoned intact. Few cities or towns were defended. Inadequate and haphazard strongpoints, frequently placed at illogical locations and often undefended, did little to slow the Allied advance. Road marches punctuated by occasional skirmishes of short duration and involving a company or at most a battalion for only several hours characterized the action.
Liberated. French girls knock down German headquarters sign.
Although the enemy could do little to hinder, shortages of supplies markedly slowed the advance. Since 3 August, when the Allies had turned eastward toward the Seine, logistical considerations had been subordinated to prospects of immediate tactical advantage.51 Pushing the advance in a gamble for quick victory had entailed a ruthless disregard for an orderly development of the logistical structure. The normal logistical structure based on a depot system could not be established under the pressure of supplying forward units on a day-to-day basis during the war of movement. The result was that go to 95 percent of all the supplies on the Continent at the end of August lay in depots near the original invasion beaches. Virtually no supplies existed between these stocks and the army dumps three hundred miles away. With supply loads being carried increasingly farther forward and carriers requiring more and more time to complete longer round trips, the deliveries to the armies dwindled during the last
few days of August to several thousand tons per day.
The planners had intended to rely on the excellent French railways for longdistance hauling, but Allied air attacks and French sabotage had virtually demolished the railroad system. The reconstruction of damaged rail lines, which required repair of choke points, rail centers and junctions, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, roundhouses, machine shops, and rolling stock, could not keep pace with the advancing forces. As early as June, when it had become apparent that paralyzing German mobility by destroying the transportation system would mean similar paralysis later for the Allies, supply chiefs had begun to request that facilities be spared and had started to hope in earnest that the Germans would not destroy them in retreat. Though the rail lines east of Paris were in better shape, the hub of the system around the French capital had been heavily damaged. By 30 August two main railroads were open as far as the capital, but the mutilated rail yards of Paris and the destroyed Seine River bridges prohibited through traffic. Small tonnages could be routed forward through Paris only after 4 September. Not until mid-September, although bottlenecks around Paris and the shortage of rolling stock still inhibited railway traffic, would the railroads begin to assume their hoped-for importance as longdistance carriers. By then the pursuit would be over.
Motor transport played a much larger role on the Continent than had been planned, and consequently theater facilities were neither well suited nor well prepared for extensive operations because of shortages of vehicles and properly trained drivers. One of the most dramatic logistical developments was the organization by the Communications Zone of the Red Ball Express, a longdistance through-highway system inaugurated late in August. Designed as an emergency expedient to support the Seine crossings by getting 82,000 tons of supplies to the Chartres--Dreux area by 1 September, the Red Ball Express became an institution that lasted until November and operated east of the Seine as well. On 25 August Red Ball convoys began to use two parallel one-way round-trip routes from which all other traffic was excluded, and before long more than a hundred truck companies were involved. On 29 August, for example, 132 truck companies--6,000 vehicles--moved more than 12,000 tons of supplies. Operating day and night and without blackout precautions, the Express delivered 135,000 tons of supplies to army service areas by mid-September.
The cost of this achievement was high--mounting strain on personnel and equipment, continual use of vehicles without proper maintenance, rapid deterioration of equipment and roads, abuse of vehicles by overloading and speeding, a large number of accidents caused by driver fatigue. The Red Ball fostered the habit of poor road discipline, offered opportunity for malingering, sabotage, and black marketeering, and tempted combat units to hijack and otherwise divert supplies. Haste contributed to poor documentation of shipments and concomitant sparse information on the status of supply. "Red Ball was part of a gamble, part and parcel of the tactical decision to cross the Seine
and exploit to the full the existing tactical advantage."52
Because the Communications Zone refrained from moving its depots forward in the interests of conserving transportation facilities, the armies took over much of the hauling. Their supply vehicles sometimes had to make round trips of up to three hundred miles. Bradley had instructed Patton and Hodges to leave their heavy artillery west of the Seine so that artillery cargo trucks could be used to transport supplies, and Hodges, for example, formed between ten and twenty provisional truck companies from these vehicles to help his forty-three Quartermaster truck companies.
The Allies also transported supplies by air, though the advantages of speed and freedom of movement were often offset by low volume and tonnage capacity, uncertainty of available aircraft, inadequate ground facilities at loading and landing sites, the possibility of enemy interference, and the hazard of weather. As a result, air supply could only be regarded as an emergency measure. However, under the direction of the Combined Air Transport Operations Room (CATOR), a special AEAF staff section that acted as a regulating station for all air supply missions, small shipments to ground forces began in June, medical evacuation commenced in July, and on 19 August more extensive air shipments started. By 25 August over 4,000 tons of supplies had been delivered to forward ground units, mainly whole blood and such signal equipment as field wire and radio parts. At the end of August, competing demands of the various armies, the civil relief program for Paris, and planned airborne operations reduced air deliveries to a trickle, but an enlarged airlift was resumed on 6 September. From 19 August to mid-September, American planes carried a total of 20,000 tons of supplies, of which about 13,000 tons were delivered to the 12th Army Group.53
By far the most important requirement of the pursuit was gasoline. During the week of 20 August, when most of the units of both U.S. armies were for the first time engaged in a war of movement, the daily consumption of gasoline ran well over 800,000 gallons. By 28 August the Communications Zone transportation resources were spread so thin and the lines of communication extended so far that daily deliveries could no longer be relied on. Increasing gasoline demands were due not only to the requirements of the combat forces but also to the ever-growing requirements of the carriers--Red Ball trucks alone consumed more than 300,000 gallons per day.
Gasoline was only one of many requirements. The troops of a single division ate about thirty-five tons of field rations a day, besides expending ammunition and wearing out clothing and equipment. Fortunately, captured German items sometimes alleviated shortages. A German dump in Namur, Belgium, for example, provided beef and canned plums and cherries; a candy factory yielded flour and sugar; a warehouse full of salt was worth its weight in gold. Yet captured stocks hardly fulfilled requirements and exactly when
dwindling supplies would finally bring the pursuit to a halt was a painful question that troubled all commanders.
The port capacity problem was still with the Allies, despite optimism in early September stemming from capture of Rouen on 31 August, seizure of Antwerp on 4 September, the rapid liberation of the minor Channel ports of Dieppe and Ostend, the quick investiture of Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkerque, and the not so remote possibility of taking Rotterdam and Amsterdam. The capacity of most of the ports was small, even when they were captured intact, and Le Havre, taken on 12 September, was far behind the front. Most important of all, British seizure of Antwerp--the greatest port in continental Europe, one close to the fighting front--had failed to prompt the Germans to relinquish the banks of the Schelde estuary along the sixty miles between Antwerp and the sea. Until the Schelde could be cleared, Antwerp was useless. It would be more than two months before the complex port problem would be solved.54
To the West Wall
The reorientation of First Army on 3 September from a northward to an eastward direction involved some complications. Gerow's V Corps in the center, virtually pinched out by the converging advances of the corps on its flanks, was to move across the rear of Collins' VII Corps to a new zone on the army right. Corlett's XIX Corps and Collins' VII Corps, turning to the right, were to advance, respectively, on the left and in, the center of the army zone.55 Since Meuse River crossings were the most urgent objective, Hodges diverted available gasoline supplies to the V and VII Corps, which were closer to the Meuse and which were to strike at once toward the river between Sedan and Namur. The XIX Corps thus remained inactive for several days.
Ordered to move through the Ardennes to fill the gap between the First and Third Armies, Gerow designated an assembly area in his new zone. Some units assembled there before marching eastward, others moved at once because of an absence of opposition. While the 4th Division on 4 September cleared some slight resistance near St. Quentin in the old zone, the 102d Cavalry Group and the 5th Armored Division abreast, the latter particularly troubled by gasoline shortages, started toward the Meuse. By 5 September they had crossed the river without difficulty. As the 4th Division followed the cavalry and the 28th Division trailed the armor, V Corps began to move through the Ardennes. A rugged wooded plateau, the Ardennes extends in a northeasterly direction across the Meuse River valley in France, through Belgium and north Luxembourg, almost to the Rhine. The corps was to sweep the region, maintain contact with the Third Army, and eventually support Patton's projected Rhine River crossings.
Spread thin over a fifty-mile front, the corps moved through southern Belgium
and Luxembourg in a dozen or more parallel battalion columns several miles apart. The troops encountered only the most perfunctory resistance and advanced as rapidly as their limited transportation permitted. When the 5th Armored Division ran out of gas on 7 September, Gerow passed the 28th through and diverted his meager supplies of gasoline to the infantry, which consumed less than armor. The 4th and 2.8th both moved steadily forward on foot and by motor.
On 8 September Gerow looked ahead to the West Wall, prepared an attack against it for 10 September, and designated Koblenz as the objective. Choosing to make his main effort on the left,56 he shifted his infantry to the north and aimed at Pruem in an approach to Koblenz. Conducting a virtually independent operation, his cavalry screens maintaining only light contact with units on his flanks, yet instructed to support a Third Army crossing of the Rhine, Gerow nevertheless turned toward closer contact with the First Army. If he concentrated the bulk of his strength at Trier, he would be forty miles from the closest Third Army forces at Metz. Perhaps recognizing the significance of the stable defenses the Germans seemed to have erected at the Moselle, Gerow turned the 4th and 28th Divisions northeastward into a narrowing zone of advance that led to the juncture of the borders of Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany.
Meanwhile, the 5th Armored Division, with an infantry regiment attached, refueled on 9 September, passed through the 28th Division, and entered Luxembourg. On the following day, as the inhabitants of Luxembourg gave an enthusiastic welcome, the armored troops entered and liberated the capital unopposed. With them came Prince Felix, consort of the Grand Duchess and at the time a brigadier in the British Army. East of the city, American tankers came into contact with some enemy forces. His troops extended over a sector about thirty miles wide, General Oliver halted his advance briefly to await instructions concerning the West Wall.
That afternoon General Gerow ordered his divisions to close the next day into assembly areas previously designated on the St. Vith-Echternach line. From there they were to probe the West Wall positions.
Although the Rhine River was only fifty miles away and the end of the war seemed at hand, General Hodges was about to postpone a co-ordinated attack on the fortifications for a day or two until sufficient artillery ammunition for an attack on the fortified line could be moved forward. Obscured by the prevailing optimism, the pause turned out to be a significant event--it marked the end of the pursuit.57
On the evening of 3 September, the three divisions of Collins' VII Corps were deployed on a 20-mile front from Mons to a point south of Charleroi. The 3d Armored and 1st Divisions were around Mons, the 9th was at Philippeville. Screening the right flank of the corps along the Meuse River, the 4th Cavalry Group was at M&ecute;zières and
Rocroi. Instructed to move eastward through Liège and Aachen to the Rhine near Bonn, Collins ordered the 9th Division to seize a Meuse River bridgehead near Dinant. The division moved out, hoping to be across the Meuse within twenty-four hours.58
An unexpectedly large number of roadblocks slowed the advance. At the river between Givet and Namar, the division discovered that Germans held the east bank in some strength. Two regiments established shallow bridgeheads north and south of Dinant, but success was far from certain. With excellent observation of the crossing sites and the bridgeheads, German troops counterattacked while their artillery shelled supply parties and potential bridge sites. One American battalion, partially surrounded, lost over two hundred men.
The German stand at Dinant was the first attempt to defend a water line since the Seine, and to the American troops it was a surprising divergence from the pattern of the pursuit. Veteran elements of the 2d SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions, under I SS Panzer Corps control, forced the 9th Division to cling grimly for thirty-six tense hours to footholds on the east bank. The Americans were unable to reinforce the bridgeheads properly, expand and consolidate them, or construct bridges for armor and supply vehicles. During the evening of 6 September, an American company commander on the east bank reported the approach of an unidentified tank column from the east, exclaiming, "We are either the luckiest people in the army or we are all going to be kaput." They were lucky. The tanks were part of a task force dispatched on Collins' order by the 3d Armored Division, which had crossed the Meuse farther north. The task force soon broke the German defenses. Infantrymen took Dinant on the morning of 7 September without opposition and that afternoon began to advance rapidly eastward.59
The 3d Armored Division, immobilized at Mons twenty-four hours for lack of gasoline (the troops took more than 2,500 prisoners while waiting-- "Hunting was excellent"), began a forty-mile march to Namur on 4 September. Tanks moved on both sides of the Sambre River; infantrymen crossed the Meuse on a damaged bridge and dispersed light German forces defending Namur. By morning of 6 September tanks were rolling over the river on a 505-foot floating treadway bridge. While an armored task force moved south to help the 9th Division, the remainder of the division again found itself out of gasoline. Meanwhile, the 1st Division had cleaned up the Mons pocket, and the infantry moved up to sweep the corps left.
When gasoline was again available, the armor advanced east of Namur astride the Meuse River, reached the town of Huy that evening, and captured the bridges there intact. On the afternoon of 7 September, after another short halt while gasoline was brought up, the 3d Armored Division moved the fifteen remaining miles to Liège practically unopposed. The Liège bridges were destroyed, but enemy opposition was
weak. Hindered somewhat by the enthusiastic welcome of the inhabitants, the troops completed routine mopping up. One of the participants later remarked:
Our chief difficulty was the fact that there were so many civilians trying to get out of town. We carried on a battle anyway, firing over their heads. At one point my tank ran over four of them as we backed up . . . several civilians crawled up on the tank and begged for guns. We had none for them. We entered the town and our tanks went up parallel streets cleaning out Ger mans. This took us all afternoon and we suffered no casualties.60
In the slightly bored tone that indicated that they had become accustomed to this sort of thing, the troops reported, "Once again cognac, champagne, and pretty girls."61
Advancing on the Liège-Aachen axis, the best invasion route into Germany, the VII Corps took Verviers and Eupen on 9 and 11 September, respectively. Although resistance was still sporadic, it seemed to be increasing. There were no more V-for-Victory signs, no more flowers, no more shouts of Vive I'Amerique. Instead, a sullen border populace showed hatred, and occasional snipers fired into the columns.62
By the end of 10 September the VII Corps was deployed along a front extending from Malmédy through Verviers to Herve, eleven miles east of Liège. The 9th Division had lost contact with the enemy, and it appeared that the Germans were disengaging to take positions in the West Wall. With German soil within reach, pursuit came to an end for the VII Corps too. Ahead lay the task of breaching the West Wall.63
Corlett's XIX Corps--which remained temporarily out of action near Tournai awaiting gasoline--trained, rested, and incidentally gathered almost nine hundred prisoners. The 79th Division departed the corps to rejoin the Third Army.64 By the time gasoline arrived and the corps was ready to move, the Allied forces on both sides had already outflanked the Germans in the new zone of advance leading east toward the Albert Canal and Meuse River between Hasselt and Liège. Bypassing or overrunning ineffectual rear-guard detachments, the 113th Cavalry Group rushed past the historic battlefields near Waterloo and reached the canal line on 7 September. The 2d Armored and 30th Divisions followed as rapidly as fuel supplies permitted, the infantry marching a good part of the way on foot. The units closed to the water barrier by 10 September.
Cavalrymen had meanwhile explored the situation along the water line and discovered all bridges destroyed and apparently strong German detachments dug in on the east bank. Since the British on his left already had a bridgehead across the Albert Canal and the VII Corps on his right was beyond both the Albert Canal and the Meuse, Corlett saw no reason for his corps to stage what
would probably be a costly assault crossing. While General Corlett made arrangements with his neighbors to use their bridges across the water obstacles, XIX Corps, like V and VII Corps, paused briefly.65
No one knew it yet, but the pursuit was over. The troops were soon to discard the "carnival garlands, ribbons, and souvenirs gathered during the liberation parade" through northern France, Belgium, and Luxembourg and become caught up again in hard fighting.66 Patton's Third Army was already immersed in the difficulties of the Lorraine campaign. Immobilized by lack of gasoline for several days, the army attacked on 5 September to gain Moselle River bridgeheads near Metz and Nancy. Five days later, though some troops had seized Toul in the Moselle bend, others had been repulsed at Pont-à-Mousson, and the army was fighting furiously for bridgeheads in the Metz and Nancy areas. Hodges' First Army was soon to be involved in problems of similar difficulty at the West Wall.67 The war of movement set in motion by Operation Cobra in the last days of July was merging imperceptibly into a war of position.
The End of the Line
Though it was not to become obvious for a week or so, the Allied troops were tired. The pursuit had been wearing on men and equipment. Casualties had not been heavy at any one place, but their cumulative effect reduced the strength of all combat units. Tanks and vehicles had gone so long and so far without proper maintenance and repair that in one armored division less than a third of the authorized number of medium tanks were actually fit for combat.68 Another had had so many tanks fall out of column because of mechanical failure or lack of gasoline that its equipment was spread over the countryside between Valenciennes and Luxembourg, more than a hundred miles. Since the gasoline shortage prevented transferring vehicles for repair, mobile crews performed on-the-spot adjustments when they were able, but those tanks that needed shop treatment had long to wait.69 Tank engines had passed the time limit of efficient operation but were hard to replace. Of 190 reserve engines considered necessary for effective combat, one armored division had had only 30 available at the beginning of the pursuit. Replacement tracks were particularly difficult to come by. Ceaseless driving caused vehicles literally to fall apart, and serious shortages of spare parts could not be remedied in the near future.70
Transportation facilities were unable to maintain an adequate flow of supplies to the front. By 6 September, for example, daily deliveries to the First Army were 1,500 tons (almost one third) below normal daily requirements. With income below operating expenses, the army began to live on its capital; basic loads vanished, reserve stocks virtually disappeared. Although a diminishing arrival of everyday necessities had not
actually stopped the sustained drive, the day of reckoning was not far away. The Allies needed no soothsayers to know that an economy of famine awaited them as they moved onto German soil.
Yet it seemed as though the Allies only partly appreciated the implications of these conditions, for no admission was made that the pursuit had come to an end. Instead, optimism in most quarters continued, "tempered only by exasperation over supply shortages." The first train arrived in Soissons on 6 September, bringing hope that shortages might soon cease to exist. On that day the regrouping of the First Army forces had been almost completed, and American leaders had expected the drive to the Rhine to gather speed. With ten days of good weather, General Hodges said, he thought the war might well be over as far as organized resistance was concerned. Four days later, however, despite promises that shortages would be only temporary, Hodges admitted, as he awaited shipments of artillery, that the supply situation would undoubtedly delay, at least slightly, a concentrated attack on the Siegfried Line.71
Hodges' feeling actually mirrored concern with a question that was beginning to trouble some Allied commanders: Was the pursuit going to peter out before the Allies got through the West Wall and across the Rhine? Certain signs, though not to become clear until later, indicated that this might happen. The Allied forces were overextended along a 200-mile front between Antwerp and Switzerland, the troops exhausted, their equipment badly worn. Continental ports of entry were inadequate, and transportation on the Continent was unequal to the demands placed upon it. As the Allies approached the German border, opposition seemed to stiffen, and the existence of the West Wall had its psychological effects. To insure the establishment of at least one bridgehead beyond the Rhine, General Eisenhower on 10 September approved employment by Field Marshal Montgomery of the Allied strategic reserve, the First Allied Airborne Army, which Montgomery was to use like seven-league boots in an attempt to get across the lower Rhine in the Netherlands.72
Whether Eisenhower drew upon SHAEF's strategic reserve to exploit the success of the pursuit or to propel a dying advance across the Rhine, the act, while perhaps subconsciously admitting the weariness of the Allied troops, sought to take advantage of German disorganization before the Germans could re-form a cohesive line. As the dispersed though optimistic Allied forces approached the West Wall, vague symptoms appeared that the Germans might achieve what they would later call the "Miracle of the West." Army Group B, despite the Mons pocket, managed to get what remained of its units east to the West Wall, and Army Group G (the Nineteenth Army and the LXIV Corps) escaped from southern and southwest France with the major part of its combat elements. By 10 September the juncture of Army Groups B and G was accomplished, and the front formed a continuous, if not solid, line from the North Sea to the Swiss border.73 Considering the shortages of men, arms, equipment,
Dragon's Teeth, the Siegfried Line
and supplies, the condition of the West Wall, and the immensity of the defeat suffered, the German recuperation would later appear incredible.
During the first few days of September there had been no coherent German defense. Panic infected rear areas. Supply installations were destroyed without orders, fuel depots demolished, ammunition dumps abandoned, ration and supply installations looted by troops and civilians, and reports on the status of supply nonexistent.74 The retreating units had hardly any heavy weapons. Few of the panzer divisions had more than five to ten tanks in working order. The morale of the troops was depressed by Allied control of the air and by the abundance of Allied matériel, as compared with the inadequate German supplies. On 4 September Model stated that, in order to prop up the entire Western Front before it gave way completely, he needed a minimum of twenty-five fresh infantry divisions and at least five or six panzer divisions.75
Hitler, for his part, showed little appreciation of the difficulties facing OB WEST and some lack of knowledge of the situation. Since 28 August, on Hitler's order, OB WEST had been planning a counterattack against the southern Allied flank, a strike north in the Troyes area between the Seine and Marne Rivers. On 3 September Hitler
instructed OB WEST to launch an attack from the Nancy--Langres area toward Reims to roll up the Third Army right flank, to prevent junction of the OVERLORD and DRAGOON forces, and to cut American lines of communication. Reinforcements arriving piecemeal and committed defensively prevented the attack from ever getting under way. As late as 9 September, several days after the Americans had crossed the Meuse and the day after the British had crossed the Albert Canal, Hitler ordered the Seventh Army to "continue to fight a delaying action forward of the West Wall, especially [at] the mighty obstacles of the Meuse and the canal west of Maastricht."76 He continued to hope that German counterattacks would cut off Allied armored spearheads and stabilize the front. He felt that the West Wall was at least potentially impregnable. And he guessed that the Allies were outrunning their supplies and would soon have to halt.
Perhaps the most critical day for the Germans had been 4 September. On that day, as the Fifteenth Army withdrew along the French coast generally to the north and as the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies retired generally to the northeast, the Second British Army plunged into the gap between the two forces and captured Antwerp. The news brought consternation to Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. The possibility that Antwerp would solve the Allied port deficiency was bad enough, but far worse was the fact that only replacement and rear echelon units held the line along the entire Albert Canal from Antwerp to Maastricht. Unless blocked quickly, "the door to northwestern Germany stood open."77
Hitler immediately ordered headquarters of the First Parachute Army and Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander of the German parachute troops, to move to the Netherlands and defend the canal lines. OB WEST, which had intended to commit the First Parachute Army in the Nancy-Langres area in a counterattack against the right flank and rear of Patton's Third Army, ordered Dietrich's Fifth Panzer Army headquarters to Nancy for the purpose. Dietrich departed at once, transferring his troops to the Seventh Army, newly commanded by General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger.78 Model ordered the Fifteenth Army, cut off by the British thrust to Antwerp, to withdraw part of its troops to the banks of the Schelde estuary (the sixty-mile water entrance to Antwerp); another part to the fortresses of Boulogne, Dunkerque, and Calais for a last-ditch defense; and a third portion to attempt to break through toward the east.79 Though the latter quickly proved impossible, the presence of German troops in the Channel ports and along the Schelde would prove a headache to the Allies for weeks to come.80 Meanwhile Student was forming a defense of the Albert Canal as "an improvisation on the grandest scale," and in a few days he succeeded in organizing the semblance of a defensive line by borrowing and
confiscating staffs, troops, and matériel from retreating units.81
Hitler on 5 September also recalled Rundstedt whom he had relieved at the beginning of July. While Model remained the Army Group B commander, Rundstedt assumed his old post, Commander-in-Chief, West. Though Rundstedt was every bit as pessimistic as Model and canceled plans for counterattacks, his reappearance at OB WEST brought a resurgence of morale. Rundstedt was able to direct his attention to the whole Western Front, which Model in his preoccupation with Army Group B had been unable to do, and for the first time since 18 July, when Kluge had assumed Rommel's duties in addition to his own, a theater commander was present to co-ordinate the entire defensive effort in the west.
Counting his forces, Rundstedt found that Army Groups B and G consisted of forty-eight infantry and fifteen panzer-type divisions, of which only one quarter could be considered anywhere near full combat strength. He judged their effectiveness to be the equivalent of twenty-seven infantry and six or seven panzer divisions at the most. He estimated that the Allies had sixty in opposition. The silver lining in this dark cloud was the fact that although few units were up to authorized strength, the staffs of all higher headquarters were for the most part intact and able to function. Discipline and reorganization soon revealed that the fabric of command, though stretched and worn, could be made serviceable. By 11 September most of the German units that had been battered, outflanked, encircled, and apparently destroyed had reappeared, in name at least, and were making an honest effort to protect the German border in the west.82
That they were able to accomplish even this much was miraculous in view of earlier German casualties. During June, July, and August the Germans had lost a minimum of 1,200,000 troops killed, wounded, missing, and captured, casualties of which approximately two thirds had been incurred in the east, where larger masses of men were employed.83 The OB WEST staff later estimated that the campaign in the west, from the invasion to the West Wall, and including southern France, had cost Germany about 500,000 troops, of which about 200,000 had been lost in the coastal fortresses. Matériel losses were impossible to estimate; in addition to battle losses, all equipment permanently installed or lacking mobility was gone.84
In contrast, the Allies had landed more than 2,100,000 men and 460,000 vehicles on the Continent by 11 September, a combat force of forty-nine divisions.85 Excluding the forces in southern France, where losses were light, Allied casualties from 6 June to 11 September numbered almost 40,000 killed, 164,000 wounded, and 20,000 missing--a total of 224,000, which was less than half the German casualties in the west.86
No wonder Rundstedt warned on 10 September that he needed at least five
or six weeks to restore the West Wall and characterized his situation on 11 September as "continued reduction in combat strength and lack of ammunition."87 SHAEF had observed that the Germans did not seem to have enough men to hold the West Wall, and despite the increasing deterioration of Allied logistics, commanders on all echelons were quite certain that the end of the war was at hand.88 The troops that had fought in the battle of the hedgerows remembered with some surprise how St. Lo had "seemed months away and Germany itself almost unattainable."89
There was a quality of madness about the whole debacle of Germany's forces in the West. . . . Isolated garrisons fought as viciously as before, but the central planning and coordination . . . were missing. ... it looked very much as though Adolf Hitler . . . might be forced into surrender long before American and British units reached the Rhine. That was the avowed opinion of allied soldiers on the western front, and German prisoners were of the same mind, often stating that it couldn't last for another week.90
The fact that the Third Army had met increasing resistance in Lorraine hardly seemed as important as the fact that the enemy was in headlong flight before the First U.S. Army. Other developments bolstered this point of view:
While it is highly unlikely that Hitler, while he holds the reins of Government in Germany, will ever permit a capitulation of her Army, his position as head of government is becoming daily more unstable, and interior unrest and dissension coupled with the gradual loss of Germany's satellites makes her position less and less stable. This indicates an early end of Herr Hitler."91
Most officers believed that the West Wall was only a bluff and that, since the Germans had hardly any troops left, it would take the Allies three days at the most to get through the fortifications. After that, there would remain only the task of mopping up scattered demoralized units inside Germany.92
The Siegfried Line . . . although a strong natural position, is not what it was bally-hooed to be by the Germans. . . . it will not be too difficult to break. . . . the great expenditure of money, matériel, and time the Germans made on the Siegfried Line is as great a waste as the French Maginot Line proved to be.93
General Bradley reported that Hodges was "quite optimistic about his ability to push through the Siegfried Line and on to the Rhine," and that the "situation in front of Patton looks very hopeful."94 Field Marshal Montgomery was still thinking of getting on to Berlin. And General Eisenhower, though he may have had reservations, began to consider objectives beyond the Rhine--as far distant as Berlin.95
In most respects, optimism seemed justifiable. Turkey had broken diplomatic relations with Germany in August, and Rumania, Bulgaria, and Finland were negotiating for peace. A repetition of the autumn of 1918, when Bulgaria had defected, and Turkey and
Austria had collapsed, appeared at hand. The Allies in September 1944 were beyond the Ghent-Mons-M&ecute;zières-Sedan-Pont-à-Mousson line that the Allies in 1918 had reached by 11 November. To some observers it seemed that the Allies were closer to victory after the pursuit in 1944 than after Marshal Ferdinand Foch's grand autumn offensive, which had preceded German surrender in World War I.
Everywhere the Allies looked in early September of 1944, they saw success. The Germans in Italy were retreating northward. The Russians were about to enter Germany in the east. In the Pacific the two main lines of Allied advance were converging on the Philippines and landings were about to take place that would immediately precede the invasion of Leyte in October. About the same time that the Japanese in northern India were being driven across the border into Burma, the Allies captured the Burmese city of Myitkyina. At the Quebec conference (OCTAGON) in mid-September, Allied leaders displayed great optimism as they discussed the probability of an immediate occupation of the German satellites, of the Axis-occupied countries, and of Germany itself.96
The end of the war in Europe seemed just around the corner, and General Marshall considered that "the push on the West Wall is of major importance in the conduct of global war at the moment."97 Allied forces in southern France on 10 September were about to capture Dijon, and that evening the first meeting occurred between reconnaissance troops of the OVERLORD and Anvil-DRAGOON forces. When Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers' 6th Army Group became operational under SHAEF control on 15 September, General Eisenhower would command forces along a continuous front from the Netherlands to Switzerland, with three army groups ready to enter Germany. No one seemed to remember Marshal Foch's reply in November 1918, when asked how long it would take to drive the Germans back to the Rhine if they refused the armistice terms, "Maybe three, maybe four or five months, who knows?"98
Twenty-six years later, on 10 September 1944, General Bradley designated six critical terrain features on the Rhine River--rather evenly spaced corps objective areas across the 12th Army Group front--as suitable bridgehead sites.99 Not even the most pessimistic prophet, if a pessimist could have been found in early September, would have ventured the prediction that it would take the Allies much longer than "three, maybe four or five months" to gain these objectives. Yet it would be March 1945 before the Allies got across the Rhine River. A cycle similar in some respects to that which had occurred during the period of the breakout and pursuit would have to be repeated before final victory came in Europe.
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