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Dark December is Robert E. Merriam’s famous blow by blow chronicle of the Battle of the Bulge (16 December 1944 – 25 January 1945), the German Army's last major offensive of World War II. Merriam was chief of the Ardennes section of the U.S. Army and his dazzling narrative is one of the most detailed first-hand accounts of the conflict. Presented from both Allied and German viewpoints, Dark December examines events leading up to the offensive, the massive engagement of German forces against unprepared American units, and finally the turning back of the defeated German Wehrmacht.
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Dark December: The Full Account of the Battle of the Bulge by Robert E. Merriam. First published in 1947. This edition published 2017 by Enhanced Media Publishing.
Cover, interior design and editing © 2017 Enhanced Media Publishing. All rights reserved.
First e-book edition 2017.
Dark December: The Full Account of the Battle of the Bulge
CHAPTER I | WACHT AM RHEIN: THE GERMAN PLAN
CHAPTER II | EISENHOWER'S GREAT DECISION
CHAPTER III | ALL QUIET
CHAPTER IV | THE PENETRATION
CHAPTER V | THE CRISIS (DECEMBER 18-26)
CHAPTER VI | THE DYING GASP (DEC. 26-JAN. 16)
CHAPTER VII | AN INVENTORY
Further Reading: Coral Comes High
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF THE MEN WHO FOUGHT AND DIED IN THOSE DARK DECEMBER DAYS, IN THE HOPE THAT THE LESSONS LEARNED THROUGH THEIR SACRIFICE WILL BE WELL REMEMBERED.
IT ALL BEGAN on July 20, 1944, forty-five days after the first Allied soldiers waded ashore through the carnage on the Normandy beaches. Shortly after noon on that day, Count Felix von Stauffenberg, Chief of Staff of the Replacement Army, and an intimate of high Nazis, sauntered into a barracks in a wood near Rastenburg in East Prussia to meet with Der Fuehrer, his military aides, Field Marshal Keitel, Colonel General Jodl, and eight other high ranking German officials. Nobody thought it strange that Count Stauffenberg placed a huge briefcase against the leg of the conference table, and then, shortly thereafter, left the room. About ten minutes later, the room erupted into fire as the bomb in Stauffenberg's briefcase touched off the most serious attempt against the Nazi regime in its twelve years in power. Der Fuehrer escaped with only arm and ear injuries, thanks to a flimsy building which absorbed the force of the explosion; but he was ordered to bed, where he personally hatched the famed German attack called the Battle of the Bulge. He was literally blown into the attack.
The aftermath of the bomb incident bordered on the comic opera. Stauffenberg watched in silent glee from a safe distance as the bomb blew the roof off the barracks. Certain that Hitler was dead, Stauffenberg hastened to the nearby airport to fly to Berlin, where his accomplices awaited the word that was to start a carefully planned uprising which would seize control of the government. But right there, things began to go wrong. Stauffenberg, methodical military planner, impatiently paced the airfield near Berlin for an hour, waiting for a car he had forgotten to order. Meanwhile, in Berlin itself, events were not running smoothly. An obscure Major named Remer, who was in command of Hitler's personal Wachtbatallion, was called in by the conspirators and told that Hitler was dead, that he was to surround the Bendlerblock (government buildings) to prevent anyone from either entering or leaving. Remer was not brilliant, but even he smelled a rat; his doubts were further stirred by one of his lieutenants who went to see a confidant of Goebbels to relate the information. The result was an order for Remer to confer immediately with Goebbels.
Picture if you can, an obscure Major dashing breathlessly into Goebbels' office, and demanding of the 'mouthpiece' if he were loyal to Der Fuehrer. But that is exactly what Remer demanded of an indignant Goebbels. Remer hastily blurted out the facts as he knew them, mainly that there was something strange going on which he did not thoroughly understand. Goebbels picked up the private phone connecting him with Rastenburg, and after some minutes delay found himself connected with a much-shaken, but very much alive, Fuehrer. "Let me speak with Remer," demanded Hitler. "Now we have the criminals and saboteurs of the Eastern Front; only a few officers are involved, and we will eliminate them from the root," Hitler told Remer. "You are placed in a historic position. It is your responsibility to use your head. You are under my direct command until Himmler arrives to take over the Replacement Army. Do you understand me?" And so Remer became a German hero.
The rest is now ancient history. The insurrection was put down; most of the ringleaders captured or killed; Hitler was bedridden with lacerated thighs, bruised elbows, cut hands and a broken eardrum; but, though seriously hurt, he was not permanently incapacitated. A ruthless purge of the army was then conducted — even Rommel, the desert giant, killed himself in a hospital, contrary to popular rumors of a peaceful death, while recuperating from effects of wounds received in an Allied strafing.
[NOTE: Both Rommel's wife and General Jodl's aide confirmed the fact that Rommel was connected with the putsch attempt and had killed himself when confronted with the choice of suicide or liquidation.]
We thought the attempt on Hitler's life was good, but it gave Der Fuehrer time to think.
AN IDEA IS BORN
During the last days of July and the month of August, Hitler lay bedridden, recovering from the shock of the bomb attempt of July 20th. Although unable to carry on with the many details to which he ordinarily devoted his time, he was able to concentrate solely on the higher strategy, and to worry about his greatest problem — how to regain the initiative lost since the Anglo-American landings in Normandy two months before.
To an American, brought up on the concept of a nonmilitary President, the leader of a country seems far removed from the myriad details of successfully operating a complicated military machine. But Hitler's aides and assistants have verified the frequent rumor that Der Fuehrer watched like a hawk detailed plans involving even movements of specific divisions. There is no doubt that the attack in the Ardennes was Hitler's idea.
The first plan for a gigantic attack to regain the offensive was developed during the height of the greatest American gains through France, when we were fast approaching the German West Wall. In mid-August, General Blaskowitz was recalled from Italy; in early September, as American forces raced across France toward the German border in a northeasterly trend, Hitler called in his General Staff and ordered immediate preparations for an attack from the German border on the rear of General Patton's Third Army. Two crack German units, 3 and 15 Panzer Grenadier Divisions [NOTE: To avoid confusion with American Army units, German Army units have been set in italics throughout the book.], were hastily assembled and moved from Italy to the Western Front. Their hope — to cut off the rear of Patton's army, and drive a German wedge across the eastern portion of France, in front of Metz, to the Belgian border. The result — to cut off the American lines of communication, and then to pinch off the armored and mechanized infantry spearheads of the American forces just meeting their first resistance in the German West Wall. But the plan was never carried out. The bridgehead west of the Moselle River was too weak, and the available troops too few. The idea of an attack, however, was not forgotten. In early September, Hitler called in Jodl and Keitel to tell them bluntly, "We must regain the initiative; Der Fuehrer has spoken."
Once having determined that only by sensational counterattack could Germany expect to regain the initiative and stave off inevitable defeat, it remained for Hitler and his military henchmen, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief, Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), equivalent to Minister of War, and Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief, Wehrmacht Fuehrungs Stat (WFST), the Armed Forces Operation Staff, completely to analyze the situation on various fronts and to determine exactly the right place to strike with the comparatively limited resources available to Germany. The abortive attack planned against Patton's southern flank was hastily thrown together; the new attack was to be carefully considered, and craftily planned.
Turning first to the Eastern Front, Hitler found himself confronted with a serious situation created by the withdrawal of Rumania from the war, and the collapse of Army Group South. However, he hoped to stabilize the front by the use of countermeasures, among them being the increased employment of Hungarian troops in the front lines; it was hoped that a new line could be erected in the Carpathian Mountains. The center of the Eastern Front had been stabilized by mid-September in a line running roughly along the Vistula and Narew Rivers, and then the East Prussian border. A serious Russian bridgehead across the Vistula River at Baranow had been considerably narrowed by German counterattacks. Army Group North was cut off in Courland, but the front had been stabilized there also, and strong Russian forces were employed in containing the German troops, which prevented the Russians from employing these sorely needed reinforcements on the East Prussian front. The general impression by mid-September was that the Russian summer offensive had died down, and that, with the possible exception of the southern group of armies, a quiet period could be expected. Hitler was confident the Reds would not be ready for a sustained offensive until sometime in February.
Shifting to the north in their analyses, Hitler, Jodl, and Keitel saw no particular cause for alarm in the Finnish withdrawal from the war. In some ways, it directly helped their future plans because some excellent mountain divisions were being withdrawn, without difficulty, to northern Norway, from where they could be moved to other fronts.
And by mid-September, the gasless Americans were sputtering to a halt along most of the Western Front as the supply lines, long taut, gave way. For once, Hitler could boast of a continuous front line in the west which, although thin and a little worn in spots, was amply backed up by the West Wall and other natural obstacles. Hastily mobilized fortress troops had been moved into the West Wall, and for the first time since the Allied invasion, Hitler was afforded a breathing spell. It gave him time to reorganize and refit his legions, which had been sorely battered by the Anglo-American teams when they swarmed ashore that early morning of June 6, 1944.
Turning to the Southern Front, Hitler and his grand strategists were not at all displeased, because there they found that the Army Group in Italy had managed to build another stable front after its retreat from middle Italy, a front still in advance of the Apennines positions. Thus, time was available further to construct the main fortified lines, and to reorganize and recuperate the troops.
In the Balkans, Hitler's legions were in retreat to Croatia. Sudden withdrawal of the Rumanian troops from the war forced a hasty readjustment of the line to close this gap between the Balkan front and the Eastern Front. Treacherous mountainous terrain and harassing partisan activities were delaying the withdrawal, but despite these obstacles Der Fuehrer and his staff were agreed that the situation was well in hand, as long as the Allies did not land troops on the Dalmatian coast behind the German withdrawal.
Even the home front gave Hitler cause for optimism. His private 'Gallup polls,' taken by swarms of probing secret agents, indicated that the attempt on his life and regime had not aroused strong popular support. On the contrary, the imminent invasion of the sacred soil of the homeland from two directions rallied the people behind the Nazis, as the most ruthless purges and pogroms had failed to do. Love of homeland swept aside personal feelings and antagonisms in a surge of popular, emotional, nationalism. The German people, still unconvinced that they were defeated, were ready to rally to the last great stand. For this reason, more sober analysts, both German and American, are prone to agree that from the prostrated Germany of May, 1945, a healthier Germany will grow than would have arisen from a surrendering, but still undefeated, Germany with which we would have been dealing had the July 20, 1944, putsch succeeded.
And so, in this summer of 1944, Hitler was able to exact further sacrifices from his people: the Volkssturm (People's Army) was formed, armed, and hastily trained; hundreds of thousands of civilians were put to work building fortifications, especially in the east, and inductions of younger men were speeded. Although the Volkssturm were not used to man the West Wall, as claimed by such military commentators as Ralph Ingersoll, Hitler put special units, such as the famous Stomach Battalions, composed of men on special diets because of ulcers and other stomach ailments, into the West Wall. Actually the Volkssturm was never used as a military force, a partisan group, and most of the 'commanders' surrendered to the first Allied troops they could find. Thus, the German version of the British Home Guard failed to rise to the heights expected of it, but it did build morale on the home front.
Most startling to Americans, who had overestimated the effect of our air raids, was the continued vitality of German industry. Despite ceaseless war in the air, Germany succeeded in maintaining production levels in many industries, and even increasing it in the absolutely vital fields of artillery, airplanes, and tanks. While admittedly suffering deeply from the war in the air, this remarkable achievement was brought about largely through the transfer of important facilities underground. Further cause for optimism on the production front was offered Hitler by the prospect of stabilizing the air war in several months, through use of the new Duesen (jet propelled) plane, which he knew would be superior to anything the Allies would be able immediately to offer. With stability in the air achieved, he would be able to expand production still further.
These were the considerations which led Hitler to believe that he would be able to take the initiative on at least one front, to destroy considerable enemy troops, and to influence the course of the war. But where to attack? And with how many divisions?
"Mein Fuehrer, give to me between twenty and thirty divisions, and I will launch an attack," blustering Field Marshal Keitel opined. But the Germans could no longer pick up such a number of divisions at a moment's notice, because they had been fighting for five long years. Where would such a force come from? First, by scraping the manpower barrel for the last time, a whole new series of divisions called the Volksgrenadiers, were to be formed, infantry divisions shorn of all but essential units, largely horse-drawn rather than motorized. Into the Volksgrenadiers, not to be confused in any way with the Volkssturm (the People's Army), were to be poured the new draftees, young men barely old enough to fight, and older men who had fought out the war on the production front. These men were to be fitted around the core of regular army officers and noncommissioned officers, and the divisions were to be filled out with ersatz infantrymen — pilots without planes, ground crews without fields, sailors without ships — all of whom were to be given guns, and told how to shoot and fight. Next, the divisions which had been battered in the Battle of France were to be reconstituted and refitted as they lay in readiness behind the West Wall. And finally, the coup de grace would be administered by a completely new army, the core of which would be four of the elite SS panzer divisions, which were to be completely refitted and retrained deep in the heart of Germany. Christened the Sixth Panzer Army, this group was given top priority in men, equipment, and officers, and selected to head it was Hitler's old friend and fanatic follower, Joseph 'Sepp' Dietrich, loyal Nazi since the beerhall days in Munich. Here, then, were the makings of the attack force; if more divisions were needed, Hitler was prepared to strip all his other fronts. This was to be an all-out gamble.
But where to attack? The Russian Front? No, the resources would be wasted in an attack which would have no decisive influence on the course of the war. The plotters agreed that even a highly successful operation in the east could, at most, eliminate only twenty or thirty Russian divisions. While serious, such a loss would only dent the side of the huge Russian manpower barrel. Nor were there any grand strategic objectives which could probably be attained with such a striking force. Likewise, in Italy, supply, terrain, and weather conditions precluded the possibility of a large-scale attack in this theater, and again the strategic objectives were minor.
In the west, conditions appeared more favorable. The Germans were well aware of the limited nature of our troop concentrations; we had won the French campaign with a minimum of troops, thanks to our complete superiority in the air, and our almost complete mechanization. Despite this smashing victory, our forces were still weak, totaling less than fifty divisions. Other considerations entered German thinking: German troops, holding out in the channel ports, had forced the Allies to supply themselves through a few conquered ports, plus the beaches in Normandy. Antwerp was still blocked by mines, and German troops covered the approaches to the port from the sea. Already, our armies had slowed down because of supply difficulties. Our airborne assault at Arnhem had met with only partial success, and the Germans had successfully driven back our most forward penetrations across the Rhine River. And finally, the German High Command, correctly estimating our intentions, expected our main effort would be in the area of Aachen, where we would attempt to break through to the Rhine River, and, eventually, the Ruhr industrial area, just east of the Rhine.
Here then, on the Western Front, were the ingredients for a successful offensive: a sudden attack which would trap twenty to thirty divisions would change the entire situation on the Western Front. Such a success would allow, at the least, respite to refit many divisions, which then could be transferred to the Russian front. Even with only partial success, such an attack would so disrupt all Anglo-American plans that it would be weeks or months before the Allies could recover. German morale would thus shoot up many hundredfold. Finally, Hitler in his most optimistic moments hoped the Americans and British might even be driven from the war by this severe setback, which would dull what he thought was the feeble democratic will to win.
The risks were great. It would be necessary to weaken all fronts to ready the attack formations: the Volksgrenadier divisions would be held back at a time when they were imperatively needed on all fronts for reinforcement of exhausted troops. The re-equipment of these divisions would claim a large part of the new production and would mean, especially for the Eastern Front, a sharp reduction in new tanks and gasoline, all so desperately needed. And finally, there was always the acute danger that the Allies would go over to the offensive while the preparations were in progress, and force their way through the German defenses. In addition, Allied air superiority on the Western Front would force the Germans to pick a period of bad weather, to allow comparative quiet as the troops and supplies were being assembled. Lastly, the experience of the 1943 German summer offensive in Russia was a bitter lesson: that frontal attack against a deep, well-manned enemy line would be doomed to failure. In that attack, after two weeks the German formations were still pushing through deep Russian defenses; they became exhausted, and the attack was called off. Thus, a new factor must be injected — surprise in a weakly held zone. But at last, Hitler felt he had the ingredients for a successful attack: surprise, a quick break-through in a weak enemy position, and a quick thrust to the rear areas, all during a period of unfavorable air weather. This would give him the offensive. The possibilities were limitless: destruction of large Allied forces; capture, or destruction, of large quantities of supplies; possible end to the war in the west. The risks were great, but the stakes high.
THE FINGER POINTS
It was during these deliberations, on a bright summer day in mid-September, that Colonel General Jodl stalked into Hitler's room, followed by his aide, Major Herbert Buechs, who was carrying the large map of Europe on which, twice daily, progress of the fighting was recorded for Der Fuehrer. As General Jodl ran his stubby finger up the line representing the Western Front, he pointed to the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg, where four American divisions held a total of eighty miles. Hitler sat up in bed, propped himself on his elbows, and asked Jodl to point out that area again. Still later in the briefing, Hitler again asked about the sector where the Americans were so few. The seed had been planted and from it the German attack in the Ardennes forests was to burst forth on December 16 to shock the Allied world.
Before then, an attack had been agreed upon in principle. The first effort, at Avranches, when the Germans tried to cut off the thin corridor skirting the bay separating the Cotentin peninsula from Brittany, nearly succeeded, but ultimately failed. The second try was with Army Group G, reinforced by 3 and 15 Panzer Grenadier Divisions, rushed from Italy to hit Patton's southern flank in early September, but was not ready in time. But on September 25th, Hitler summoned Jodl and Keitel. This time he was prepared to attack. He was still a sick man, but he was also a desperate, determined man. "I am," he cried, "determined to hold fast to the execution of this operation, regardless of any risk, even if the enemy offensives on both sides of Metz, and the imminent attack on the Rhine territory lead to great terrain and town losses." The die had been cast: Jodl was ordered to prepare the detailed plan for submission at the earliest possible date. Der Fuehrer’s outline was bold and simple: a quick thrust toward Antwerp to cut off the rear installations of the Allies and crush twenty to thirty divisions in the trap north of Antwerp. And a fanatic Hitler hoped that this would turn the tide of battle on the Western Front.
A FATEFUL DAY
Hitler, once determined on one last desperate course of violence on the Western Front, arrayed his pieces in the gigantic game of chess, preparing for the final moment. Up to the famous military library at Liegnitz went one of his aides; by dint of several hard nights poring over the now dusty books, he returned in a few days with reams of papers outlining the German plans and actions in the forests of Luxembourg and Belgium in the campaign of 1940. Jodl, working long, wearying hours with his aide, Major Herbert Buechs, consulted with a few carefully selected high officers, finally drew up the first preliminary plan for the attack. Gradually a pattern emerged from this research and from almost daily discussion with Hitler: the brunt of the attack would be carried by two panzer armies; infantry divisions supported by heavy formations of antitank and antiaircraft weapons would block to the north and south to protect the flanks of the attacking armor; the Luftwaffe would be unwrapped for a "dying gasp" support of the attacking forces. The surprise attack would be preceded by a short, but powerful, artillery concentration. Bridgeheads across the Meuse River were to be secured the second day of the attack. And following this, armored divisions of the second wave would reinforce the attacking divisions while they reprovisioned. Then both waves were to strike hard through disorganized and demoralized Allied resistance, toward Antwerp. The panzer units were not to waver in their single determination to reach the Meuse River; all pockets of opposition were to be left for following infantry units, and all flank attacks were to be dealt with by the supporting troops. As Model later said, Onward to the Maas (Meuse).
It was a lovely fall day October 8, 1944, when Colonel General Jodl walked into Hitler's office bearing with him the first fateful plan to rewin the war in the west. It is no wonder that Hitler broadly smiled at Buechs, Jodl's aide, even winked and joked a bit, as details of the ingenious plan were unfolded to him. Der Fuehrer could not imagine that six months later he would be dead, alongside his wife, and Colonel General Jodl would be apologizing for his actions before an Allied court. Those were thoughts as unreal to the plotters as was the possibility of a German attack in the minds of the Allied High Command. It is almost inconceivable: on October 8, when the bitter struggle for Aachen, first major German city to be attacked, was underway, Hitler, Jodl, Keitel, and Buechs, calmly sat in Berlin, planning the destruction of half the Allied troops on the continent. On October 8, two weeks after the combined Allied Chiefs of Staff had met with Roosevelt and Churchill in Quebec, three Germans were issuing the first orders which would culminate in the concentration of twenty-nine German divisions, in the largest single pitched battle of the war on the Western Front. On October 8, five days after another new American army, the Ninth, had assumed its place in the line, ironically enough in the forests of the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, Hitler was receiving reports outlining the strategy of the German attack through this very area in 1940, and planning a new campaign to destroy our new army. Not many of us who drove and walked along those roads on October 8th, as I did, were even thinking of the German attack of 1940 — none of us in the wildest nightmare dreamed that this would be repeated.
Unbelievable as it may seem, on October 8th, General Jodl presented a favorable picture: four panzer divisions in the Sixth Panzer Army, two panzer divisions in the Fifth Panzer Army, six additional panzer divisions which could be rested near the front lines — total twelve panzer divisions which could be made available for the attack. By November 20, sixteen of the new Volksgrenadier divisions would be ready for action, and by December 10, four more; two parachute divisions could be made available; twelve artillery corps, fourteen army artillery battalions, seven rocket brigades, thirteen antitank battalions, all to be available for action by November 15. Hitler gleefully rubbed his hands, made tentative assignments of divisions to armies: nine divisions to the Sixth Panzer Army led by erratic, fanatic, but loyal 'Sepp' Dietrich; seven divisions to trusty and crafty Manteuffel in the center with his Fifth Panzer Army; and seven divisions to Brandenberger on the south. The plan? While Brandenberger swung to the south to hold off attempted reinforcement by Patton's Third Army and Dietrich employed an infantry corps, borrowed from the Fifteenth Army to the north, with the same mission, the main panzer forces of Dietrich and Manteuffel were to plunge through the center in the mad dash for the Meuse River, which the optimistic High Command hoped to reach on the second day, and then onward toward Brussels and Antwerp. When these objectives were reached, the other fronts would be drained to provide the additional troops necessary to liquidate the Americans and British isolated by this swift knockout blow. Command of the three armies was to rest with Field Marshal Model, commander of Army Group B, working under the direction of the old master, von Rundstedt, Commander in Chief of all forces in the west. "It was a gamble," said Jodl, "but we were in a desperate situation, and the only way to save it was by a desperate decision — we had to stake everything."
Jodl continued his discussion with Hitler: the attack, said Hitler, would go to the north toward Antwerp, rather than south because there was no schwerpunkt (limiting pole) to the south, no anchor on which to hinge a halt. The distance to be travelled was 125 miles to Antwerp, 60 miles to the Meuse River at the nearest point. Jodl made certain that Hitler recognized the obstacles to be met, the physical obstacles having nothing to do with the state of German industry, manpower and transportation systems. There were narrow unpaved roads, diagonally running rivers offering numerous opportunities for demolitions which could delay the advance, many hills, possible mud. All this only strengthened the determination to reach the Meuse River quickly. West of the Meuse to Antwerp was good tank terrain; and then, too, although the land on the flanks east of the Meuse was rugged, once obtained it was superb for defensive purposes.
Three days later, a second conference was held with Hitler. This time Der Fuehrer had some counterproposals: "Broaden the attack base," he said, "carefully plan artillery positions to achieve maximum fire power, especially prepare plans to protect the northern flank where the heaviest attacks will occur. Issue orders that under no circumstances will Liège be attacked. Give up the idea of using parachute units to capture the Meuse River bridges — the Luftwaffe could not be counted on to get them through. Base plans on target date of November 25, as this is the new moon period, good for attack because the nights will be dark, and this will aid us in night movements; but above all else, surprise is our keynote — secrecy must prevail." And so came about one of the most amazing orders of an amazing regime.
ON PAIN OF DEATH
Even Hitler recognized that 1944 was a far cry from Poland in 1939, the Lowlands in 1940, Yugoslavia and Russia in 1941. In each of those cases an unsuspecting 'friend' was caught off base by the rapidity of the German drives, overrun almost before he could even declare war on the unethical Germans, who were not prone to announce their intentions in advance. But this time it was a weakened Germany, with many of her best men already dead (a million and a quarter according to Jodl), with her industries still running, but hard-pressed by incessant Allied 'terror raids.' A supposedly alert Allied army was already on Germany's doorstep, waiting only the right moment to make the final kill. With a fixed front, the only way to achieve the mobile conditions of blitz warfare was by surprise, complete surprise, and an attack at a weak point where the Germans could get a running start before the Allies could react.
Anyone who has been with an army in the field knows the difficulties which beset a commander attempting to maintain secrecy while planning a huge offensive. Add to that the suspicions heaped up through twelve years of dictatorship and absolute rule, top it off with a recent attempt on the dictator's life by numerous leaders previously considered friendly by him, and then just to emphasize your point kill off your top commander in the west because he wants to surrender to the enemy and you have the situation in Germany as confident Hitler, cocky Keitel, and cunning Jodl plotted the new attack in the Ardennes.
All of these thoughts must have flashed through Hitler's mind on October 12, 1944, as he conferred with his key advisors. Could he trust Goering? Press Chief Dietrich? Rundstedt? Model? Even Himmler and Goebbels? Who were his friends? How could he be sure? Finally the decision was made: at first, he would trust only the closest confidants, Keitel, Jodl, and a small group of high officials in his headquarters. Gradually, as the need arose, and only then, others would be informed, but only after signing a written oath not to reveal the plan at the risk of being shot. One by one they were called in during the next month: Fegelein, liaison officer to Himmler; General Burgdorf, aide to Hitler and Personnel Adjutant; Press Chief Dietrich, and his assistant Lorenz. On October 12th, Hitler sent an order to Rundstedt saying that new reserves were being grouped to meet the threatened Allied attack to the Rhine River by a counterattack. The code name was Wacht Am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine); thus camouflage deception was carried even to the Commander in Chief in the West. Hitler was taking no chances; he decreed that Rundstedt would be kept in the dark until he, Hitler, gave the word. There was no trust in Germany.
These secrecy regulations were strictly adhered to during the entire planning period for the German attack. Almost to the very end, those who were informed of the attack plans were painfully forced to sign the secrecy pledge. Hitler himself laid down a careful schedule outlining when the various echelons of command should be notified of the plans. Each army commander was informed only of his particular role. Assault divisions were to be brought into the attack areas on the last day. Daylight movement of troops was forbidden. No scouts were allowed to make reconnaissance of the land over which the attack was to be made. All artillery and antiaircraft positions were surveyed by the highest commanders, who were not allowed to tell their subordinates of the plans. Combat planes were to be held deep in Germany until the day of the attack. All armies involved were required to retain their existing command posts. Fake radio messages were given out; a dummy army group was established north of Cologne further to confuse the Allies. Troops were told that the new Volksgrenadier divisions were being assembled to relieve battle-worn divisions then in the line. As the troops moved into their assembly areas immediately prior to the attack, motor vehicles were prohibited nearer than five miles from the front lines, and airplanes flew up and down the lines at night to drown out any possible motorized noises. Each village where troops were quartered prior to the attack had its own Tarnmeister responsible for concealment of the troops. Traffic was severely limited; telephone and telegraph lines were not to be used for messages concerning the attack. Only officer couriers were allowed to carry the orders, and they were not allowed to fly. 'Unreliable' elements, including Alsatians, Luxembourgers, Poles, and Russians, were weeded out of the attack divisions and sent to schools. Artillery pieces being moved up were halted during the daytime, and placed in woods near roads so that their tracks would not be picked up by Allied reconnaissance planes. Bridging equipment, a dead giveaway for offensive action, was carefully hidden. And high officers spread false rumors of their mission — Manteuffel, for instance, gleefully accounted to me how he announced in a stage whisper while sitting at a café that he was getting ready to attack the Saar. And other rumors and false clues, carefully planted, further misled us.
But the basic element of the secrecy plan was perhaps the most effective because it dovetailed so well with the Allied state of mind. It was the idea stressed by the code name Wacht Am Rhein which implied a defensive attack to prevent our reaching the Rhine River. This was emphasized throughout, and was formalized on November 5th when Field Marshal Keitel issued his camouflage order, which said:
Large scale attack to be expected against line Cologne-Bonn. To attack this from-flanks, two counterattack forces to be formed, one northwest of Cologne, the other in the Eifel. Latter to be concealed as far as possible, former to be made to appear more important. This is to be given as the reason for deployment of Luftwaffe.
By this device a clever plan was made diabolic. It was clever because the German High Command knew that the Allies would surely spot some attack preparations, as they did, but it was diabolic because the Germans sensed the Allied frame of mind — exhilarated at the tremendous victories in France, overconfident, anxious to end the war with a final blow, intent on this end almost to the exclusion of other possibilities. The Nazis cashed in on it for their own good. Overwhelming proof of the success of this maneuver is the astounding fact that the only American Intelligence Officer who, in a printed report, mentioned the possibility of a large-scale German attack, predicted exactly what the Germans wanted him to predict — a defensive counterattack.
No one can deny that the secrecy plans were a great success. True, there were some slips, and some anxious moments in the German camp. The Sixth Panzer Army was spotted, as it was planned, in the Cologne plain in November, and many a cold night was spent around the Allied fireplaces speculating about when it would be used, but not once was the suggestion advanced that it would attack in the Ardennes forests. Two artillerymen from the Sixth Panzer Army were reported lost about four days before the attack began, but one had been killed before capture, and the second eventually returned. One deserter was lost from the Seventh Army. Reports drifted through the lines mentioning concentrations of German troops in various villages behind the lines. Despite careful precautions, heavy vehicular movements were heard. All of these clues might have been important slips were it not for the Allied frame of mind, and the cunning German cover-plan of Wacht Am Rhein which threw us completely off guard. The Germans scored their first major prerequisite for a successful attack — complete, utter surprise.
Gerd von Rundstedt, General Field Marshal, Commander in Chief of the German forces in the west, typified the German military aristocracy who, while finding much fault with the Nazi regime, were not inclined to fight an institution which glorified the military might of Germany. A high-minded aristocrat, Rundstedt played a peculiar role in the Battle of the Bulge. Seventy years of age, Rundstedt had once retired after a long, and in German military terms, distinguished career spanning nearly half a century. His had been an important role in the development of the German army, and especially the infantry, in the period between the two wars. But when war finally came, he stepped out of his retirement, and was in the forefront, brilliantly commanding an Army Group in the attacks in Poland and France, and the subsequent campaign in Russia where he led the conquest of the Ukraine. Rundstedt was transferred to the west in 1942, and there he remained right through the Allied invasion, replaced for a time, but soon back in the saddle. Although we have no definite information that Rundstedt was implicated in the attempted putsch of July 20, 1944, there are indications that Hitler was not prone to trust him, or perhaps any of the other German generals, following the abortive attempt on his life. However, others who looked for leadership from Rundstedt in the attempt violently to overthrow Hitler were likewise sadly disappointed, perhaps, as military commentators such as Liddel Hart have implied, because his ambitions had burned out his moral courage.
Rundstedt was a brilliant military leader, quick to grasp the significance of any particular operation, to analyze the obstacles, and then in turn successfully and oftentimes brilliantly to overcome these barriers. As General Jodl described him, "Rundstedt always enjoyed complete authority and had an excellent head for operations. He had studied in the old school." Whatever the reasons, whether because of his age, his fundamental doubts about the efficacy of an attack in the Ardennes, or his belief that Germany was defeated, Rundstedt divorced himself almost completely from the planning for the Ardennes offensive. Ironically enough the "Rundstedt Offensive," as our press was prone to call it, was not directed by Rundstedt, who devoted himself almost exclusively to the supply phases of the attack. Perhaps he was purposely by-passed. Jodl hints at this when he reports: "On account of his (Rundstedt's) age, he was not so well-fitted to spur men on to superhuman efforts in an adverse situation." Whatever the cause, Field Marshal Model did the lion's share of the field planning for the German attack, and directed the troops once it had begun. Rundstedt, old and weary, secure in his position, sat back, the skeptic to the end.
Field Marshal Walter Model was a sharp contrast to the austere, haughty, Rundstedt. Nothing better typifies this than the fact that at the war's end Model was one of the few German generals to take his life. This dramatic end to a spectacular military career indicates his fanaticism and devotion to the cause. Model was 54, and had been originally introduced to Hitler by Goebbels. From 1939 to 1941, he commanded a panzer division which made an enviable record as it slashed its way ruthlessly through the various opponents of Nazism. On the Russian front in July, 1944, at the time of the attempted putsch, Model quickly proclaimed his loyalty to Hitler, and for this Der Fuehrer was eternally grateful. Being considered "reliable," Model was shifted to the politically more dangerous Western Front shortly after the abortive surrender-attempt to the English by von Kluge (see Chapter II). Here Model assumed command of Army Group B which led the rejuvenated German armies following the debacle in France. It was he, rather than Rundstedt, who masterfully planned the details of the German smash into the Ardennes.
Of the three army commanders, none matched Josef 'Sepp' Dietrich for unashamed, rapid, fanatical, Nazi political maneuvering. One glance at this short, squat Bavarian adds understanding to the bitter hatred for him evidenced almost unanimously by the German generals. His conceit is matched only by his seemingly complete lack of the military wherewithal to make a good general. Dietrich's career mirrors the rise of the Nazi party in Germany. An enlisted man all through the First World War, Dietrich considered himself to be the greatest tank expert in the German army because of the few months he was a tank sergeant. After the war, he served in the army until 1928, when he went to Munich and joined the Nazi party. Trained as a butcher by profession, he quickly resumed his civilian trade, only this time as head of the SS Stubafu, infamous group which furnished bloody protection for party rallies. This return to butchery won for him a seat in the Reichstag in 1931, and the honored role as Hitler's personal bodyguard during the election campaign of 1932. From then on the name Dietrich is synonymous with everything violent in the Nazi career; first, he organized the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler, special unit for protection of Der Fuehrer; then it was the Roehm affair, when he was ordered to start off the blood bath.
Later his LAH led the Germans across the Austrian border, marched into the Sudetenland, participated in the attack on Czechoslovakia, sustained heavy losses in the Polish campaign, fought in France, battled in Greece, joined in the attack on Russia, went as part of the relief army for Paulus at Stalingrad, fought in Normandy, and now head of the Sixth Panzer Army, the butcher had graduated to the head of his class — highest SS officer in Germany.
Dietrich had neither the training nor the mentality to become an army commander. Rundstedt admirably summed up his characteristics in one succinct sentence: "He is decent, but stupid." Goering said, "He had at most the ability to command a division." Why, then, did Hitler entrust this man with the cream of German armored might in his last great gamble?
The answer dates back to the shaky July 20 when Hitler so nearly met his death; the roots lie deeper in Hitler's fundamental distrust of the military. Jodl suggested this when he said that there was certain political interference in the conduct of the war, and that some things had been done which he would not have done on purely professional grounds. This is as near as Jodl would come to admitting the fact —Hitler had chosen his top ranking SS General for this last attack, the man who had risen from Captain to Oberstgruppenfuehrer der Waffen SS (Lieutenant General) in four years, to provide the fanatical base necessary to carry through with his daring plans. Not only did he provide Dietrich with the best equipment and men, but in addition, Hitler placed the main effort with the Sixth Panzer Army. Theirs was the shortest, but the hardest, route to the Meuse River because this army skirted dangerously close to the huge Allied concentrations in the Aachen salient. Dietrich could be certain that his flank would be the first to be attacked.
One might again, therefore, ask: "Why was Dietrich chosen to lead the main effort; why this man with no extraordinary ability, no general staff training, little military background; why this man to lead the main columns of the great attacking forces?" To provide a clairvoyant answer to this one would require deep probing into the philosophical background of dictatorship, and perhaps into the inner mind of Hitler. Chalk it up to undying loyalty to his cause, the reward of friendship.
But Dietrich was not wholly without assistance in the complicated task of maneuvering a panzer army. Although Rundstedt and Model had no say about the selection of Dietrich to lead the main effort, they did insist that Dietrich be given one of the most capable men on the General Staff, and to this end Brigadefuehrer Der Waffen SS Fritz Kraemer was assigned as Chief of Staff to Dietrich. Kraemer was the antithesis of Dietrich: regular army, trained by the General Staff, keen, witty, intelligent, and a gentleman, he had been shifted from the regular army to the SS during the course of the war. Not as fanatical as Dietrich, Kraemer was known and respected by the other army generals. His was the difficult task of pulling together Dietrich's army. To Kraemer fell the task of plotting the strategy for the Sixth Panzer Army.
General der Panzer Truppen von Manteuffel, an alert Wehrmacht officer, was one of the leading exponents of armored force, a master of armored tactics. Early in September of 1944, Manteuffel was given command of the Fifth Panzer Army which had been selected to launch the abortive attack against Patton's southern flank during the early days of September. Later, he was slipped into the line south of Metz, but in October, Hitler shifted him to Aachen, where his army took over defense of that crucial city, and the entire sector screening the Ruhr industrial area. Manteuffel remained in this sector until the second week in November, when he and his staff were withdrawn to prepare for the Ardennes attack.
Although the irascible Dietrich appears to have had little to do with the development of the tactical and strategic planning for the big attack, Manteuffel played a prominent role, even persuading Hitler to make certain basic changes in the attack hour and method. Being a brilliant tactician he commanded the respect of not only Hitler, but the General Staff and the field commanders as well. Model leaned heavily on Manteuffel for the effectuation of his plans. And here one of Hitler's basic inconsistencies caught up with him: after selecting Dietrich to lead the main effort, he practically ignored him in the planning phases. So obvious was the affront that Dietrich, like an apologetic schoolboy, told me how he knew nothing of the attack plans until December 12, four days before the start. I knew he was lying, and took great pains to point out chapter and verse to prove my point. But Dietrich stuck to his argument, and like the bully turned coward when cornered by bigger boys, his bravado vanished when I asked him to explain how Manteuffel knew so much about the planning of the attack, and he, Dietrich, nothing. "Manteuffel had influence with Hitler," he innocently blurted out.
Steady Erich Brandenberger, General der Artillerie, unspectacular and little-known, was a soldier's soldier. Carefully trained in the various military schools, Brandenberger was well versed in the basic principles of attack and defense. Thus like Manteuffel, he was head and shoulders above fanatic Dietrich. When he first heard of the impending offensive, Brandenberger's army occupied the sector south of Manteuffel. His was the least spectacular of the three army missions: with six infantry divisions he was to pivot on the southern hinge of the attack, fan out to the south, and block any Allied attempts to hit the southern flank of the penetration. His hardest task, it was thought, would be to keep pace with the hard-riding panzers to his north.
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