A morning with temps above 0°!! We actually started today at +12, but of course it came with 5-6″ of snow. And now we’ve got 40-50mph wind gusts, which means terrible road conditions. Then another couple nights in the deep freeze. I really, really hate the cold. I know, I’m obsessing. But this is getting ridiculous.
The Battle of the Bulge was a fairly significant embarrassment to Allied military leaders. Hitler’s last gamble had made fools of them all to some degree. As we noted before, there would be a lot of after-the-fact finger-pointing. There would be plenty of passing the blame. And there would be pontification about how “we knew they were coming” and “we had it all under control”, but Allied leaders that said such things were lying.
When Hitler’s forces had attacked through the Ardennes in 1940, they had reached the Meuse River in just two days. This time, Hitler’s forces ran out of gas (in both the literal and figurative sense of the phrase) long before they reached that goal, much less their ultimate goals of Antwerp and Brussels. Once the weather cleared around Christmas, the Allies’ vast advantage in the air rained down on the (now stalled) Wehrmacht parade. Allied fighters and bombers had a field day, plinking tanks and decimating infantry columns almost without opposition.
And while one shouldn’t understate the inherent German weakness in the December offensive – weakness caused by increased Allied bombing and pressure from the West, the East (from where the Soviet hordes were descending), and the South – care should also be taken not to understate the contributions made by Allied soldiers…particularly American soldiers. It’s easy to forget that, in spite of the multiple countries coming at Germany from the West, 90% of the soldiers that fought in the Ardennes were Americans…many of them with little combat experience.
The 99th and 2nd Divisions were green troops or recuperating troops, sent to a relatively “quiet sector” to gain experience (or regain health) before moving to the front lines. On December 16th, the front lines came to them in traumatic fashion, and relative “boys in war” became men, doing so at a price that stained the pristine Ardennes snow a bloody red. American casualties were the heaviest of any campaign fought anywhere during the War. Nearly 20,000 Americans were killed and another 70,000 were wounded or captured. But they held against a most determined and desperate foe.
So it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that American commanders, stinging from their miscalculation and reeling from their losses, were angry…no, incensed is a better word…by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s actions on January 7, 1945. It was then that he held a press conference, largely taking credit for stopping the Germans.
Monty said, “As soon as I saw what was happening, I took certain steps myself to ensure that if the Germans got to the Meuse they would certainly not get over the river.”
In his book The Longest Winter, Alex Kershaw says, “The picture Montgomery gave of the battle was of massive American blundering: only when he had been brought in to command the armies holding the northern shoulder had catastrophe been averted.”
In fact, it was the 99th, outnumbered and holding under intense pressure and bitter cold at Elsenborn Ridge (which we’ll cover at some point), that allowed the northern shoulder to hold. Max Hastings, one of my favorite historical authors, writes in his book Armageddon that Monty “opened a petrol can on to Anglo-American tensions, then used the personal pronoun to ignite it. . . . Even after sixty years, it remains astonishing that a highly intelligent man who had reached the summit of command could be capable of such vainglorious folly.”
General George Patton, never one to hide his feelings and having been frustrated by Monty in the Mediterranean, was less angry with Monty’s words than he was with Monty’s refusal to actually counterattack with any serious aggression. He said that, had it not been for Montgomery, Americans could have “bagged the whole German Army…War requires the taking of risks and he won’t take them.”
It’s also possible that Montgomery was still bitter at “losing out” on overall command to Ike, even though he had instead been given the rank of Field Marshal by Churchill as a bone. Or maybe he was trying to get a little more attention shown on the British, who comprised barely one-tenth of the battle forces at the Bulge. But whatever the reason, Montgomery’s grandstanding really angered the American commanders. And even as the War was winding down, disagreements such as this (some with issues going all the way back to North Africa two years before) were serving to tear down relations between the Americans and British.
The war had gone on long enough.
Recommended Reading: The Longest Winter