CHAPTER ONE

Time of Hope

ALLIES OF A KIND

THE FIRST OF September 1944 marked the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, outbreak of the Second World War. The struggle had already continued for nine months longer than the earlier conflict, once called the Great War. The 1914–18 conflict cost the lives of a mere nine million people. Its successor would account for at least five times that number, the overwhelming majority of whom died in the Soviet Union or in China (where their passing remained largely unremarked by Westerners, then or since).

The British people somewhat flattered themselves about their own role. France, Britain and the dominion were the only belligerents voluntarily to have entered the conflict against totalitarianism as a matter of principle in support of Polish freedom, rather than as victims of aggression or in hopes of booty. Churchill’s brilliant defiance in 1940 mitigated Hitler’s triumph in western Europe that year. Without his genius, it is likely that Britain would have sued for peace. At no time after June 1940 was there a possibility that British arms could defeat Germany, or even play the principal part in doing so. Yet it was characteristic of British self-indulgence that, when Hitler invaded in Russia in June 1941, some thoughtful people recoiled in disgust from the notion of fighting alongside the bloodstained Soviets, even though their participation opened up the first, perhaps only realistic, prospect of overcoming Hitler.

In Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Sword of Honour, the British officer Guy Crouchback embraces war in 1939 as a crusade against the modern world in arms. His faith is lost, however, when he finds his country allied with the Russians. That was fiction, yet in cool reality the head of the British Army, Sir John Dill, said in 1941 that he considered the Russians “so foul that he hated the idea of any close association with them.” Dill’s successor as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, initially regarded the Soviets with both moral and military contempt. Churchill’s government embarked upon a huge propaganda campaign, to convince the British people that “Uncle Joe” Stalin and his nation were worthy friends of freedom. This was so successful that in 1945 it proved a painful task to shatter public delusions, to break the news that perhaps the Soviet Union was not quite such a good thing after all.

Yet if the accession of the Soviet Union as an ally prompted equivocal sentiments, that of the United States provided cause for unstinting celebration. “So we had won after all!” Winston Churchill exulted, on hearing news of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Between that date and May 1945, the United States devoted 85 per cent of its entire war effort to the struggle against Germany. Yet, paradoxically, few Americans ever felt deep animosity towards the Germans, of the kind which they cherished towards the “yellow barbarians” who had attacked them at Pearl Harbor. “I didn’t work up a great hate of the Germans,” said Nicholas Kafkalas, a twenty-four-year-old captain commanding an armoured infantry company of 10th Armored Division in north-west Europe. “They were pretty good soldiers. A lot of Americans felt less engaged against the Germans than against the Japanese.” By the autumn of 1944, largely armed and equipped by the industrial might of the United States, the Allies were in no doubt of victory. But the gratitude of the weary, battered, hungry British people was mingled with resentment as they watched Americans in their tens of thousands, brash and fresh, clean and rich, pour off the ships on their way to join Eisenhower’s armies. The New World’s soldiers came to harvest the fruits of victory without, as the British saw it, having endured their share of the Old World’s pain.

A thirty-two-year-old academic serving as a combat historian with the U.S. Army in September 1944 read British newspapers. He noted the fears these expressed, that the Americans would claim to have won the war on their own. “Unfortunately [for the British], nothing can stop our people from claiming the victory,” Forrest Pogue wrote presciently.

They believe the British slow, they over-emphasize their [own] total contribution. The British will never get full credit for their part in winning the war, since their greatest glory was holding on in the 1939–42 period. This was negative type of fighting, and will fade . . . Russia will be played down, perhaps, in later years at home . . . Hers was the positive sacrifice that broke Germany and made the landing [in Normandy] possible. However, ours was the voice and the helping hand that encouraged England to keep fighting, that replaced the terrific loss of matériel suffered by the Russians.

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All this was true.

Winston Churchill, whose irrational stubbornness in 1940 had averted Hitler’s triumph, enjoyed the years of victory much less than he had expected. Like his people he was weary, as well a man of sixty-nine might be. He suffered increasing ill-health. He was made wretched by consciousness of his shrinking power in the Grand Alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. He was haunted by apprehension that Hitler’s tyranny in eastern Europe would be supplanted by that of Stalin. In 1940, Britain’s prime minister had been warlord of the sole bastion of resistance to the Nazis. In 1942, even if the Soviets treated him with the morbid suspicion due to an old imperialist and adversary of revolution, the Americans deferred to his greatness and to his nation’s experience of war. From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill’s influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler’s empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944—Operation Overlord—as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.

“Up till Overlord,” wrote Churchill’s private secretary when it was all over, “he saw himself as the supreme authority to whom all military decisions were referred. Now, he is by force of circumstances little more than a spectator.” Churchill himself acknowledged this: “Up to July 1944 England had a considerable say in things; after that I was conscious that it was America who made the big decisions.” In 1944, the United States produced as many weapons as all the Axis powers together—40 per cent of the entire armaments employed by all the combatants on every front in the Second World War. Tensions grew between Britain’s prime minister and America’s president: “Roosevelt envied Churchill’s genius, and Churchill increasingly envied Roosevelt’s power,” in the words of the historian John Grigg. The warmth of public exchanges between the two men masked a private coolness, and especially the consequences of Roosevelt’s impatience with Churchill, which became ever more marked in the last months of the war.

While Roosevelt’s life reflected the highest ideals, he was a much less sentimental and more ruthless man than Churchill. Roosevelt possessed, claims his most recent biographer, “a more perceptive and less romantic view of the world than Churchill.” This proposition is justified insofar as Roosevelt recognized that the days of empires were done, while Churchill’s heart refused to accept the signals of his brain that it was so. Yet any claim of Roosevelt’s superior wisdom becomes hard to sustain convincingly in the light of the president’s failure to perceive, as Churchill perceived, the depth of evil which Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union represented. It may be true that the Western allies lacked the military power to prevent the Soviet rape of eastern Europe, but posterity is entitled to wish that Roosevelt had allowed himself to appear less indifferent to it.

The British considered that neither the president nor the U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, for all his greatness as lead manager of America’s war effort, exercised the mastery of strategy that was needed to finish the war quickly. “As [Roosevelt’s] grip slackened during the last year of his life,” argues one of the best historians of Anglo-American relations at this period, “. . . the President became in some ways a liability in terms of the effective conduct of United States and Allied business . . . his refusal to face the facts concerning his own state of health . . . suggest, not so much heroism, as is usually argued, but irresponsibility and an undue belief in his own indispensability, if not a love of power.” Even if this verdict is too harsh and ignores the likelihood that an elected replacement president in January 1945 would have been less impressive than Harry S. Truman, it is hard to dispute the assertion that Roosevelt’s judgement was flawed, his grasp upon events visibly slipping, from his 1944 re-election campaign until his death in April the following year.

Yet American vision about the most important strategic decision of the western war, the assault on the continent, had proved superior to that of the British. As late as the winter of 1943–44, Churchill continued to fight a rearguard action for his cherished Mediterranean strategy. He pursued the chimera of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia. He remained instinctively anxious to defer an invasion of north-west Europe, which he feared could become a bloodbath reminiscent of the First World War. Painful experience of the limitations of Allied forces against those of the Wehrmacht, the greatest fighting machine the world had ever seen, dogged his consciousness. The prime minister always acknowledged that a confrontation in France must come sooner or later. But he remained uncharacteristically dilatory about its timing. General* 2 Sir John Kennedy, Britain’s Director of Military Operations, wrote after the war that he doubted whether the invasion of Normandy would have taken place before 1945 but for the insistence of the U.S. Chiefs of Staff: “American opinion on the landing in France in 1944 was, without a shadow of doubt, ‘harder’ than ours.” Franklin Roosevelt could claim personal credit for insisting that D-Day should take place when it did. Marshall, likewise, declared with some justice that one of his own principal wartime achievements was to resist Churchill’s follies.

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In the summer of 1944, American confidence in Overlord was triumphantly vindicated on the battlefield. After ten weeks of bitter fighting in Normandy, German forces collapsed in rout. The broken remnants of Hitler’s forces staggered away eastwards, leaving almost all their tanks and guns wrecked upon the battlefield. The Allies had expected to fight river by river and field by field across France. Instead, Paris fell without a fight. In the early days of September, British columns streamed into jubilant Brussels, where they received a far warmer welcome than they had encountered from the French, among whom political and psychological wounds ran deep. “One got the impression that the Belgians felt they had done their bit by eating their way through the war,” said Captain Lord Carrington of the Guards Armoured Division, one of many Allied soldiers astonished by the plenty he found in Belgium, after years of privation at home in Britain. Courtney Hodges’s U.S. First Army approached the frontiers of Germany. The vanguard of George Patton’s U.S. Third Army reached the upper Moselle. Huge expanses of territory lay undefended by the Nazis. A few feeble divisions, supported by mere companies of tanks against the Anglo-American armoured legions, manned the enemy’s line. For a few halcyon days, Allied exhilaration and optimism were unbounded.

Meanwhile in the east, the Soviet Operation Bagration boasted triumphs to match those of the Americans and British. Indeed, the Russians’ achievement was much greater, since they faced three German divisions for each one deployed in France. Between 4 July and 29 August, the Red Army advanced more than 300 miles westwards from the start line of its northern summer offensive. The fervour of the Russians’ loathing for their enemy was intensified by the desert they found in Belorussia as the Germans retreated—crops ploughed into the ground, all livestock gone, a million houses burned, most of the population dead or deported for slave labour. Private Vitold Kubashevsky of 3rd Belorussian Front had already lived through two years of war, but recoiled in horror from what he now saw in Belorussia. Once he and his platoon noticed a stench emerging from a shed beside a church, and entered to find it stacked with the rotting corpses of local peasants. When correspondents reported on a Nazi death camp found at Maidenek in Poland, where the ashes of 200,000 people were still piled in the crematorium, some Western media—including the BBC—refused to publish their dispatches, suspecting a Soviet propaganda ploy. The New York Herald Tribune said: “Maybe we should wait for further corroboration of the horror story . . . Even on top of all we have been taught of the maniacal Nazi ruthlessness, this example sounds inconceivable . . .”

By September, the Red Army had recovered all but a small fragment of the Soviet territories lost since 1941. Stalin’s people, who had achieved their decisive victory over Germany at Kursk in July 1943, now stood at the borders of East Prussia, and on the Vistula within a few miles of Warsaw. The Germans clung to a mere foothold in Lithuania. Further south, the Russians had driven deep into Rumania, and held a line close to the capital, Bucharest. Only in the Carpathian Mountains did the Germans retain a narrow strip of Russian soil. German casualties were horrendous. Fifty-seven thousand captives from the Fourth Army were marched through the streets of Moscow on 17 July. Muscovite children jeered and threw stones. A watching six-year-old was so conditioned by propaganda images of the enemy that she noted her own astonishment on seeing that these Germans possessed human faces. She had expected to see the features of wild beasts. Most Russian adults looked on in grim silence. Yet a Western correspondent watching the shuffling parade of Germans was surprised to hear an old Russian woman mutter: “Just like our poor boys . . . driven into the war.” Between July and September, Hitler’s forces lost 215,000 men killed and 627,000 missing or captured in the east. One hundred and six divisions were shattered. Total German losses on the Eastern Front that summer—more than two million men killed, wounded, captured and missing—dwarfed those of Stalingrad. It was little wonder that Stalin and his marshals were dismissive of Anglo-American successes in France. A recent American study has described Bagration as “the most impressive ground operation of the war.” Yet if its gains were awesome, so was its human price. Russia’s summer triumphs cost the Red Army 243,508 men killed and 811,603 wounded.

In the second week of August, Marshal Georgi Zhukov—who had brilliantly orchestrated the summer operations of the two Belorussian Fronts—together with Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky, his subordinate at 1st Belorussian Front, considered with Stalin the possibilities of an early thrust west across Poland, on an axis which would lead finally to Berlin. This was rejected, chiefly because Rokossovsky’s forces were exhausted by their long advance, and also because Stalin perceived opportunities elsewhere. Russia’s warlord committed his forces, first, to new operations on the Baltic Front, where some thirty German divisions held out in coastal enclaves, some of which they retained until May 1945; and, second, to a series of major offensives in the Balkans, where several countries lay ripe for Moscow’s taking.

Militarily, the Balkan campaign was rational but not essential. Politically, however, from Stalin’s viewpoint the temptation was irresistible. On 20 August, the Red Army launched a million men into Rumania, whose people were known to be ready to abandon Hitler’s cause. Allied bomber attacks were destroying the country’s oil industry. For many months, the Rumanian government had been exploring the possibilities of a deal with Moscow to change sides. Now, the Soviets advanced twenty-five miles on their first day in sectors unconvincingly defended by Bucharest’s forces. On 23 August, after a coup in the capital, Rumania announced its defection to the Allies. German intelligence, always the weakest arm of Hitler’s war effort, was taken wholly by surprise. Rumania would now provide the Red Army’s path to the Danube delta, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Some 70,000 German troops staged a fierce, brilliant breakout from Soviet encirclement, but many more found themselves cut off. The Red Army entered Bucharest on 31 August, having covered 250 miles in twelve days. The Rumanian Army had fought alongside the Germans, albeit ineffectually, throughout Hitler’s campaigns in Russia. Now, when a Rumanian delegation arrived in Moscow and was shown into the office of Stalin’s foreign minister, Molotov demanded contemptuously: “What were you looking for in Stalingrad?”

In Bucharest, the Rumanian Jewish writer Iosif Hechter described in his diary a mood of:

bewilderment, fear, doubt. Russian soldiers who rape women . . . Soldiers who stop cars in the street, order the driver and passengers out, then get behind the wheel and disappear. This afternoon three of them burst into Zaharia’s, rummaged through the strongbox, and made off with some watches . . . I can’t treat these incidents and accidents as too tragic. They strike me as normal—even just. It is not right that Rumania should get off too lightly. This opulent, carefree, frivolous Bucharest is a provocation for an army coming from a country laid waste.

When Hechter and his kind, delivered from the spectre of the death camps, clapped wildly as Soviet columns marched through the streets, other Rumanians “looked askance at the ‘applauding yids’.” Hechter gazed upon the weary, filthy, often ragged Red soldiers and reflected: “Ils ne payent pas d’apparence”—‘They don’t look much’—but they are conquering the world.”

Though the Soviets’ pace slowed as difficulties of supply and maintenance overtook their armies, they maintained their push throughout September. The battle for Rumania cost the Germans some 230,000 men, and the Soviet Union 46,783 dead and 171,426 wounded, along with 2,200 tanks and 528 aircraft. To maintain a perspective between east and west, we should note that one of the least bloody Soviet operations of 1944–45 thus incurred greater casualties than those of the British and Canadians in the entire campaign for north-west Europe. Bulgaria, however, fell without a shot being fired. As soon as Russian troops crossed its border on 8 September, they were greeted by their supposed Bulgarian adversaries assembled in parade order with red banners unfurled and bands playing.

Hardly a single one of the Soviet soldiers now pouring into eastern Europe had ever before set foot outside his own country. They were fascinated, and sometimes repelled, by a host of novelties. “Russians had a stereotype of Poland as a bourgeois capitalist state hostile to the Soviet Union,” writes a Russian historian. “I can’t say we liked Poland much,” wrote a Russian soldier. “We saw nothing noble there. Everything was bourgeois and commonplace. They looked at us in a very unfriendly way. They just wanted to rip off their liberators.” Rus-sian soldiers were ordered to respect Polish property, yet few took heed. When a man was reprimanded for stealing a sheep, his comrades protested. “Come on, we said,” one of them remembered, “what’s a sheep? This man has been fighting since Stalingrad.”

Lieutenant Valentin Krulik could not understand why Rumanian peasant houses allowed cooking smoke to seep out through their front doors, until he learned that the state imposed a chimney tax. After the desperate poverty of the Rumanian countryside, he and his men were bewildered to find the capital, Bucharest, ablaze with lights, its shops open and full of goods. As Major Dmitry Kalafati led an artillery battery through the first Bulgarian villages in his Willys jeep, their vehicles were bombarded with water melons. The first Bulgarian troops they met said simply: “We’re not going to fight you Russians.” Kalafati drove unimpeded for miles across Bulgaria and into Yugoslavia in his cherished jeep with the commander of 3rd Ukrainian Front. The Russians liked Yugoslavia, but some found the Yugoslav people, and especially Tito’s communist partisans, conceited and condescending: “They seemed to look down on us.” Lieutenant Vladimir Gormin, one of the Russian gunners supporting the Yugoslavs, admired the partisans’ spirit, but was doubtful about the tactical merits of their practice of advancing into action behind an accordionist singing nationalist songs. Yulia Pozdnyakova’s signals unit was billeted for a time in the immense castle of a Polish count. Among the flowerbeds were stone reliefs of Poles who had fought with Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812. The young Russian girl felt very angry: “I was indignant that anybody could have lived like this count, waited upon hand and foot. I had never seen anything like it in Russia—the huge baths, the marble statues of naked women. It seemed all wrong.”

It is the nature of every soldier in every war to focus overwhelmingly upon his own prospects of life and death, rather than to think much about distant battlefields. The men of the Red Army cared little for the doings of their allies, save that they were thankful for American trucks and canned meat. Among many other commodities, the United States supplied to the Soviet Union 500,000 vehicles, 35,000 radio sets, 380,000 field telephones and a million miles of signal wire. Few Russians were ever allowed to know that they marched to Berlin in boots manufactured by the U.S. under Lend–Lease, or that much of the Soviet Union’s aircraft production was made possible by American aluminium supplies. Moscow never acknowledged that, from late 1943 onwards, only 20 per cent of the Luftwaffe was deployed on the Eastern Front, because the remainder was fighting the Western allies over Germany.

American ships which delivered vast consignments of equipment were rigidly quarantined in Russian ports. Every member of their crews was treated as a prospective spy and political seducer of Soviet citizens. “Three of our agents have been introduced into the dock unloading crews,” the local NKVD chief reported to Lavrenti Beria, overlord of Stalin’s security apparatus, when an American freighter docked at Sebastopol. “The main purpose is to prevent possible attempts to plant U.S. agents in the port, and to prevent possible provocation by hostile elements among the crew, and to prevent any contact between port staff and the crew. Female agents who have received most detailed briefings will be kept in close touch with officers who come ashore.” Yet Roosevelt continued to believe that he could do business with Stalin in a way that Churchill could not. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Averell Harriman, who had become converted to a deeply sombre view of the Soviet Union, visited Roosevelt in November 1944 to urge the need for much greater American toughness towards Stalin. He emerged despondent: “I do not believe that I have convinced the President of the importance of a vigilant, firm policy,” he wrote. Many Americans were more troubled by the residual imperial ambitions of their British ally than by the designs of their Russian one upon eastern Europe. “The British would take land anywhere in the world, even if it were a rock or a sandbar,” Roosevelt observed caustically to his secretary of state. A letter-writer to the San Francisco Chronicle complained that “American boys spilled their blood in Europe to protect the mighty Empire . . . Yesterday in her dark hour England whimpered for aid against the arrogant. Today, the winning of her battle made certain by the blood and wealth of America, England is arrogant.” Washington strove manfully to sustain a working relationship with Moscow, despite relentless Soviet slights.

Russians nursed a contempt, not discouraged by Stalin, for the belated achievement of Overlord. “We spoke very little about the Second Front,” said artillery officer Major Yury Ryakhovsky. “We never felt any weakening of German pressure because of what the Western allies were doing—indeed, we didn’t feel they were doing much. Their campaign was merely a splinter in Germany’s side.” “It was a pity the Americans and British did not start fighting sooner,” said Lieutenant Pavel Nikiforov sardonically, observing that he himself had been wounded in action three times before the first Allied soldier stepped ashore on D-Day.

Soviet behaviour towards the West throughout the Second World War conformed to an historic pattern identified by the historian Orlando Figes: “Complex feelings of insecurity, of envy and resentment towards Europe . . . define the Russian national consciousness.” A Rumanian who visited Russia in September 1944 was awed by the hardships being endured by the population, and noted a mixture of arrogance and inferiority complex in Russian attitudes towards the world: “They are aware of their great victories but at the same time fear they are not being shown sufficient respect. This upsets them.” The Russians scorned the political hypocrisy which they perceived in their Western allies. The Anglo-Americans exercised their consciences about the future governance of Bulgaria and Rumania while appearing wholly indifferent to Soviet expressions of concern about continuing fascist dictatorship in Spain. Here were characteristic bourgeois double standards. The Yugoslav partisan leader Milovan Djilas wrote after a meeting with Stalin in June 1944: “I was filled with admiration for the ruthless, inexhaustible will of the Soviet leaders. And with horror for the endlessness of the cunning and evil that surrounded Russia.” John Erickson, British chronicler of the Red Army, speaks of a mood of “embattled isolation” among both Soviet soldiers and civilians.

The Russians revealed to the Western allies next to nothing about their operational plans. American pleas to deploy liaison officers at Soviet Army headquarters were summarily rejected. For all the public courtesies exchanged between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, a spiritual divide separated Russia from its Western partners, which would become an abyss as the season approached to garner the spoils of victory. That majestic wartime phrase “the Grand Alliance” masked the reality that the Anglo-Americans and Russians were joined only by the purpose of destroying Hitler. Whatever Roosevelt’s suspicions of Churchill, the war aims of the United States and Britain were largely unselfish. Those of the Soviet Union were not. Stalin’s ambitions now embraced a lust for vengeance and conquest on a colossal scale. This was understood by every German who had participated in his nation’s three-year rampage across the Soviet Union, or who was aware of what had taken place. It sometimes seemed that the Western allies were mere intruders, uncomprehending eavesdroppers, upon the death struggle taking place between the two rival tyrannies in eastern Europe.

At no time during the autumn and winter was the entire Eastern Front tranquil. But, for five months between mid-August 1944 and mid-January 1945, the line in Poland remained almost static. The Red Army could not have sustained simultaneous operations in Poland, on the Baltic Front and in the Balkans. The Russians needed hard ground to move tanks, and precious little was available in Europe before the turn of the year. It remains just plausible that Stalin could have pushed towards Berlin, and thus ended the war sooner, had the Soviet Union conducted strategy solely in accordance with military objectives. Instead, however, Stalin chose to secure the Balkans before amassing munitions for a new offensive on the Vistula river in central Poland, the decisive front against the Wehrmacht. Zhukov’s armies began an autumn and winter of patient preparation, gathering their strength and extending their immense supply lines before launching Russia’s mighty blow, towards the heart of Germany.

“EVERYTHING IS GOING SO WONDERFULLY WELL”

THE PEOPLES OF the democracies liked to suppose themselves better informed than those of the tyrannies concerning both the war and the world in which they lived. Yet in the autumn of 1944 many American and British soldiers fighting in the west shared an indifference and an ignorance about the misty struggle in the east which mirrored attitudes within the Red Army towards the Western allies. “In those days, we knew so little about the Russians,” said Major William Deedes of 12th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. “We were amazingly ignorant about what they were doing. We were much more interested in listening to Vera Lynn on the radio.” Field-Marshal Montgomery, visiting the Polish division under his command, blithely inquired of its commander whether, at home, Poles communicated with each other in the Russian or German language. He would no doubt have been amazed to be informed that Poland had a longer independent history than Russia. American and British generals were aware of Soviet victories, but knew nothing of Soviet intentions. They were entirely preoccupied with the next phase of their own war, the thrust towards the Rhine. They took for granted the pre-eminence of their own operations, because such is human nature.

American and British soldiers had fought battles in France through June and July which inflicted sufferings upon the infantry as grievous as any of the war, and which indeed matched the unit casualties of some 1916 actions. The British 4th Wiltshires, for instance, had been gravely depleted. In September the battalion’s companies were reduced to eighty-odd men apiece, and many platoons were led by NCOs rather than officers. Captain “Dim” Robbins, a company commander, said: “Normandy had been a shattering experience for us. We hadn’t realized the Germans were quite that good, even though they had nothing like what we had.”

Many men of the British Army were very tired. A few had fought through France in 1940. More had served in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia in 1941 and 1942, through Sicily and Italy in 1943. Even those who remained in England without seeing combat had lived for years amid bombing and rationing, squalor and ruins and family separation. Most felt that they had “done their bit” and, in the case of the Mediterranean veterans, more than their bit. Before D-Day, in 3rd Royal Tanks a mutiny was only narrowly averted. Returning home after three years with the Eighth Army, they were told that they must fight another great battle, and were deeply distressed. Sixth Green Howards, who had campaigned through the desert, Sicily and Normandy, were so depleted by September that the unit was broken up. “We thought: that’s it then. Some other buggers can carry on now,” wrote one of the survivors, Private George Jackson. “But no, we were all split up and sent to reinforce other units that were desperately short of personnel. It seemed unfair, to say the least. Some of my mates were not really young, had wives and kids, while fit young men were still in England driving lorries or doing army accounts.”

Meanwhile American sensitivity about the relative feebleness of the British contribution was growing. Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana complained in Congress: “It is hard for me to understand why we, with the biggest army in the world, should find it necessary to draft more men when we have four times as many in the war as the British.” Some important Americans, their president foremost among them, were morbidly suspicious of what they perceived as Churchillian attempts to sacrifice American lives in support of the restoration of the British Empire. The United States had accepted in 1942 the policy urged upon it by the British of “Germany first.” But many Americans, including a few at the summits of command, regarded the European war as regrettable business to be concluded before their country settled accounts with its principal enemy, Japan.

The divide between the Western allies and the Germans and Russians was most strikingly reflected in their attitude to casualties. Stalin’s commanders looked forward to the last phase of the struggle for Europe with their customary indifference to death and suffering, save insofar as these influenced the Red Army’s ability to fight its next battle. The leaders of Germany had conducted a romance with death for more than a decade. They still cherished hopes of final victory, though it was already plain that Hitler would settle almost equally willingly for a climactic bloodbath worthy of the Third Reich’s place in history.

General Dwight Eisenhower’s citizen soldiers, by contrast, were united in September 1944 by relief that after Normandy the end was in sight. Enough blood had been shed. It was good to believe that now it was a matter of mopping up. After the breakout in France, in Captain “Dim” Robbins’s words: “we were told that the German Army was wrecked. It was just a question of crossing the Rhine.” Men thanked their stars for approaching deliverance, and many resolved to take as few chances as possible in the last days. On 28 August, the British Air Ministry circulated a memorandum to all RAF commands about precautionary measures for celebrations of the end of the war. There should be no extravagant or destructive displays, it warned. Commanding officers should ensure that personnel had no unauthorized access to firearms, explosives or pyrotechnics. “Everything is going so wonderfully well,” Colonel George Turner-Cain, commanding the British 1st Herefords, wrote in his diary on 1 September, “with the Huns showing little fight. Most seem content to give themselves up.” Four days later, he recorded: “Rumours flying in streams. Swiss radio says Hitler has gone to Spain and peace has been declared.”

Many Germans seemed eager to abandon the struggle. “A Jerry gives himself up to us in a cabbage field,” Trooper John Thorpe of the 2nd Fife & Forfar Yeomanry wrote in his diary on 2 September. “The water is running out of his clothes, he’s covered in mud and shaking with cold and fright. We give him a biscuit and hand him over to our infantry.” “Dear Mum,” Lieutenant Michael Gow of the Scots Guards wrote home on 1 September, “Isn’t the news splendid? At last it seems that the German withdrawal, which in many respects was as masterly as our advance, has turned into a rout.”

The weary remnants of I SS Panzer Corps found themselves approaching the little town of Troisvierges, just inside Luxembourg, on their retreat into Germany. “We could not believe our eyes,” said Captain Herbert Rink, one of its battle-group commanders.

Down in the town stood the entire population along the main street, flowers and drinks in hand. They were clearly waiting for the liberation forces . . . We did not have much time, if we wanted to beat the Americans to the town . . . We raced out of the forest . . . turned down the main street, keeping a watch to the south, and drove slowly past the waiting people . . . Never in my life have I seen people so quiet and embarrassed. They did not know what to do with their flowers. They looked at the ground. Their hands sank in a helpless gesture.

Fortunately for the people of Troisvierges, the Americans were indeed close behind the SS half-tracks.

A Dutch doctor, Fritz van den Broek, was on holiday with his family near Maastricht. He gazed in wonder upon the spectacle of German occupation troops fleeing eastward on dolle Dinsdag—“Crazy Tuesday,” as the Dutch christened 5 September—laden with the booty of half Europe—paintings, furniture, carpets, clocks, even pigs. The doctor thought, “Well, that’s it then,” and took the train complacently home to Dordrecht, untroubled even by the interruptions to his journey caused by strafing Spitfires, to wait out the few days that seemed likely to intervene before liberation. “It was a glorious feeling when we heard of the Allied breakout,” said twenty-year-old Theodore Wempe, a Dutch Resistance worker in Appeldoorn. “The Germans seemed completely panic-stricken. We expected each day to be the last of the war.”

“This period was made up of fruit,” wrote Brigadier John Stone, chief engineer of the British Second Army. “Belgians stood by the roads with baskets of grapes, pears, apples, plums and peaches. If you stopped for a moment, presents were pressed on you, and a refusal hurt the offerer very much.” “As we went across France with no resistance of any moment in front of us, we were racing towards Germany,” recorded General Omar Bradley’s aide Colonel Chester Hansen. “I thought they might quit.” In the first week of September, 67 per cent of Americans questioned for a Gallup poll said that they expected the war to be over by Christmas. The British embassy in Washington reported to London on the national mood: “Early victory in the European campaign continues to be taken for granted.” The Allied Control Commission for Germany was “called upon to make itself ready to operate in Berlin by 1st November.” “Until mid-September,” observed Sergeant Forrest Pogue, “the intelligence estimates all along the lines were marked by almost hysterical optimism.”

On 4 September, for planning purposes the British Cabinet accepted 31 December as the likely date for the end of the war. The U.S. War Production Board in Washington cancelled some military contracts, on the assumption that the material would not be needed. On 8 September the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, told the prime minister that, while the Chiefs of Staff did not ignore the possibility of continued German resistance, it seemed unlikely that the Nazis could survive the winter. Churchill, almost alone, dissented. He wrote to the Joint Intelligence Committee: “It is at least as likely that Hitler will be fighting on 1 January as it is that he will collapse before then. If he does collapse before then, the reasons will be political rather than military.” More than any other man at the summit of Anglo-American power, the prime minister respected the fighting power of the German Army and had grown painfully familiar with the limitations of the armies of the democracies.

Yet what could the enemy fight with? Ultra, the wonderful fount of intelligence which poured forth to Allied commanders from Bletchley Park the daily riches of decoded German signals traffic, detailed the enemy’s weakness. An intelligence estimate on 12 September suggested that the Germans could deploy only nineteen divisions for the defence of the West Wall—the frontier fortification of Germany also known as the Siegfried Line—reinforced with a further five or six by the end of the month: “The West Wall cannot be held with this amount, even when supplemented by enemy oddments and large amounts of flak.” A jubilant intelligence summary by British Second Army on 5 September suggested that partisan activity against the Allies would henceforward pose a more serious threat to the Allied advance than the wreckage of the German Army:

[It] is tolerably certain that the enemy has not kept at home a reserve which is well enough trained or equipped to hold an invading force at bay for long, particularly if the latter includes armour . . . But invasion of Germany is different to invasion of France. The population will not be friendly . . . pockets left may be more than a nuisance, and sniping, minor attacks on single vehicles, staff cars etc. may be prevalent. Even if a breakthrough proves relatively easy, the enemy left behind will have to be cleaned up. The population, which may be provided with small arms, will need to be disarmed.

American commanders shared this mood. Bradley’s aide recorded on 5 September: “Brad believes the Germans may either fold up with our crossing of the Rhine, or . . . as long as the SS has its hold, we may be forced into a guerrilla clean-up of the entire country, a costly and troublesome process.” Nor did the enemy seem to dissent. Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt told Hitler on 7 September that it would be six weeks before the West Wall could be manned and made defensible. Meanwhile, Army Group B—the principal German force in the west—possessed just a hundred tanks with which to confront the Allies’ 2,000. Ludwig Seyffert, a general commanding the German 348th Division, told interrogators after his capture on 6 September: “The Allies should be in the heart of Germany in less than two months.” On 4 September, Corporal Joseph Kolb wrote home from the beleaguered German garrison at Calais: “I am still alive, but perhaps this will be my last letter of all to you. How we shall end up I don’t know—either dead or in captivity.” Likewise Private Fritz Gerber: “Our only hope is to be taken prisoner. Now, my dear ones, I send you my last greetings from the West, and should we not see each other again in this world, we must hope to be reunited in another one above.” Sergeant Helmut Günther, serving with the ruins of 17th SS Panzergrenadiers on the Moselle, said: “We were amazed that it took the Allies so long to engage us. We were utterly exhausted. Yet we were given the chance to catch our breath and regroup at Metz. It seemed extraordinary.”

Inside the Third Reich, among informed people with no connection to Hitler’s regime, there was a desperate impatience for the end. Only peace could bring a halt to relentless death. Allied victory would mean a chance of life for millions of captives, not least those who had dared to oppose Nazi tyranny. “For the thousands locked up by the Gestapo and for those who were still waiting to be picked up,” wrote Paul von Stemann, a Danish journalist who spent the war in Berlin, “it seemed to be a race with their lives at stake. ‘If they can only hold on till October,’ somebody said, ‘the Allies will be here and they will be safe.’ Somebody else said: ‘The war cannot last till Christmas—it is only a matter of perseverance.’ ” Von Stemann was startled to hear Germany’s official military spokesman, Major Sommerfeldt, observe casually one day in September that he expected the Allies to break through the Siegfried Line at any time, “and then the war will be over in 14 days.” Off the record or not, Sommerfeldt’s words seemed to the journalist a revelation of despair within the Wehrmacht.

Throughout Germany, by an order of 24 August Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels closed theatres, cabarets and drama schools, and disbanded all orchestras except those essential for radio broadcasting. Only scientific and technical literature, school books and “certain standard political works” continued to be published. The working week was extended to sixty hours, and a “temporary” ban on holidays was imposed. Frau Keuchel of Betzdorf wrote to her husband: “It is dreadful to read the communiqués and realize that Tommy is progressing further, or rather coming nearer, every hour. Here, people are full of fears . . . No doubt you will have heard of the complete ban on holidays and now, to cap it all, the 60-hour working week. If I was to fulfil this, I would have to leave Betzdorf at four in the morning to get to the office!”

From Weichselstadt in Poland, Frau Kaiser wrote to her husband, a sergeant-major on the Western Front: “My nerves are bad . . . Your little girl is very sick—food poisoning and high fever. Even the doctor doesn’t know what has caused it. I think it is the war. The food is bad and the bread is terrible. What will become of us? You are so far away and I am so alone. Day and night we hear the rumble in the distance. Everyone has to dig trenches, Poles and Germans alike. Couldn’t you manage to get yourself captured in one of the encirclements?” Frau Strauch, a sergeant’s wife, wrote in similar vein: “Today is Sunday, overcast and cold, and my state of mind matches the weather. I could cry. Yet I still cannot believe that God will permit that we Germans should be ruled by murderers like the Russians.”

On 3 September, Field-Marshal Walter Model, “the Führer’s fireman” who had succeeded as C-in-C of Army Group B after the suicide of the defeated Günther von Kluge, issued an order of the day to his men: “We have lost a battle, but I tell you—we shall still win this war. I cannot say more now, although I know that there are many questions burning on the lips of every soldier. Despite everything that has happened, do not allow your confident faith in Germany’s future to be shaken . . . This hour will separate the real men from the weaklings.” Model’s enigmatic words reflected only his hopes for Hitler’s new rockets and jet fighters, none of which offered a realistic prospect of averting defeat. The Americans later computed that 24,000 conventional combat aircraft could have been built with the German resources squandered on “wonder weapons.” Yet the short, stocky, frankly uncouth commander of Army Group B remained unswervingly loyal to Hitler. For all Model’s competence as a commander, his behaviour, like that of many of his colleagues, reflected a refusal to confront reality. Rational military analysis led inexorably to despair.

Yet an astonishing number of German soldiers remained convinced that the war might be won. A straw poll was conducted among eighty-two prisoners of the Luftwaffe’s 6th Parachute Division. Asked whether they still believed Germany would prevail, even in captivity thirty-two men replied “certainly”; fifteen “possibly”; nine “doubtful”; sixteen “impossible”; and ten refused to express an opinion. Captain Hans-Otto Polluhmer, former signals officer of 10th SS Panzer, nursed feelings of guilt, “a belief that I had let the side down,” even as he languished at Camp Polk, Oklahoma, after being captured at the Falaise Gap. Many of Polluhmer’s fellow prisoners still believed victory attainable, and some of them physically assaulted “weaklings” who revealed doubt. Eugen Ernst, a Wehrmacht reserve colonel captured in Holland, wrote to his family from prison camp in England, asserting boldly that he expected Germany’s new wonder weapons would soon arrive and turn the tide of the war. An American survey of German PoWs showed that more than two-thirds still expressed belief in their Führer as late as November 1944. The Nazis’ assiduous cultivation of the warrior ethos had created some young fanatics of the Waffen SS who simply liked fighting for its own sake, even now that they were losing the war. A captain of 1st SS Panzer said: “We reached a point where we were not concerned for ourselves or even for Germany, but lived entirely for the next clash, the next engagement with the enemy. There was a tremendous sense of ‘being,’ an exhilarating feeling that every nerve in the body was alive to the fight.”

Private Bruno Bochum harboured no such sentiments. Like many of his comrades, the nineteen-year-old flak gun captain simply considered himself to be in the business of survival. Most of his battery’s 20mm guns were lost during their retreat from Brussels. At one moment, they found themselves fleeing eastwards, while a column of British armoured cars raced them on a parallel road. By the time Bochum’s group reached the Albert Canal, just one of their guns was left, together with a hundred gunners. The wreckage of the canal bridge was negotiable by men on foot, but impassable to vehicles. They pushed their truck and gun into the canal, and swarmed across the bridge girders under British fire. Then they walked day and night in search of their unit, constantly losing stragglers. Bochum somehow evaded the questing military police, who were rounding up fugitives like himself, made his way home to Mönchengladbach, broke into his family’s empty apartment and sank gratefully into a bath: “We recognized that the war was lost, but there was nothing we could do to hasten its ending.” After considering his predicament, he saw no choice save to quit Mönchengladbach and rejoin the remains of his unit, with which he then served to the end.

“Throughout August,” wrote a British staff officer, “strategic policies remained confused . . . In the atmosphere of indecision combined with euphoria.” The first of the errors which denied the Anglo-Americans a breakthrough into Germany in 1944 was made on 21st Army Group’s front. On 4 September, the British 11th Armoured Division exulted as its men reported to Second Army that they had overrun the giant port of Antwerp in Belgium, with its facilities intact. This was a real stroke of fortune. Every officer in the Allied armies knew that supplies, and ports for unloading them, were now the vital factor in enabling the Allies to finish the war. At that moment, had they chosen to do so, the British could have driven onwards up the forty-mile coast of the Scheldt which linked Antwerp to the sea with nothing to stop them. The battered German Fifteenth Army, comprising 100,000 men who had lost most of their transport, would have been isolated if the British had advanced just a few miles further. For Fifteenth Army’s commander, General Gustav von Zangen, the arrival of 11th Armoured in Antwerp was “a stunning surprise,” which presaged doom for his forces.

Yet now the British made one of the gravest and most culpable errors of the campaign. They failed to perceive, as the Germans at once perceived, that Antwerp was useless as long as the Allies did not command its approaches. No ship could negotiate forty miles of German coastal artillery and minefields. The Royal Navy had repeatedly warned both SHAEF and 21st Army Group that it was essential to secure the banks of the Scheldt before the port could become operational. Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay wrote to SHAEF, copied to Montgomery, on 3 September, the day before 11th Armoured Division reached the docks: “Both Antwerp and Rotterdam are highly vulnerable to mining and blocking. If the enemy succeeds in these operations, the time it will take to open ports cannot be estimated . . . It will be necessary for coastal batteries to be captured before approach channels to the river route can be established.” Even as the tanks of 11th Armoured deployed in Antwerp, Belgian Resistance leaders warned of the vital importance of the Scheldt. Exhausted British officers, sated by the dash across Belgium they had just accomplished, brushed the civilians aside. Many of the liberators were so weary that they fell asleep in the tanks where they halted.

While the British celebrated, refuelled and rearmed, the Germans acted. Von Zangen was ordered at once to move his forces across the Scheldt, to occupy the island of Walcheren, commanding the river estuary from the north-east, and to secure an escape route northwards into Holland for the rest of his army. “Pip” Roberts, the slight, energetic thirty-eight-year-old commander of 11th Armoured Division which had occupied Antwerp, believed the British would thereafter be driving on eastwards, towards the Ruhr. The northern fragment of Holland seemed to him irrelevant. His division’s post-war history observed apologetically: “Had any indication been given that a further advance north was envisaged, these bridges might have been seized within a few hours of our entry.” As the Germans blew the Albert Canal bridge a few hours after the arrival of Roberts’s men, “I realised that I had made a great error . . . This sort of situation is just like boxing; if your opponent seems a little groggy, you must keep up the pressure.” Roberts was too self-critical. It seems wrong to place responsibility for British failure upon either himself or his corps commander, Horrocks. It was not their business to identify strategic objectives. Blame must be laid at the doors of Eisenhower, Montgomery and possibly Dempsey, commanding Second Army. Each man had by this stage of this war enjoyed ample opportunities to recognize the importance of speed in all dealings with the Germans on the battlefield. Yet none made any attempt to galvanize Roberts’s tired soldiers. Given Montgomery’s contempt for his Supreme Commander’s lack of strategic insight, the British field-marshal might have been expected to see for himself the pivotal importance of the Antwerp approaches.

Over the days that followed 11th Armoured’s arrival at the port, the Germans used boats and ferries, chiefly by night, to carry out an operation as skilful and as important as their withdrawal from Sicily into Italy across the Straits of Messina a year before. In sixteen days, they moved 65,000 men, 225 guns, 750 trucks and 1,000 horses across the waterway north-west of Antwerp. While some men were left to hold the Scheldt approaches, the remainder escaped across the base of the Beveland Isthmus into Holland, to play a critical role in thwarting the British through the battles that followed. The German evacuation was comprehensively monitored by British decoders at Bletchley Park. Every enemy movement was reported to SHAEF and 21st Army Group. Yet no effective action was taken to interdict the Scheldt. The area was heavily mined by the Germans, and thus Allied warships could not intervene from the North Sea. RAF aircraft of 84 Group repeatedly attacked the enemy’s ferry crossings, and sank some ships. But the Germans were able to maintain an effective shuttle through the hours of darkness, when fighter-bombers could not interfere.

Only on 13 September, nine leisurely days after Antwerp was seized, was belated action begun to clear the Scheldt approaches. First Canadian Army was given the task. Its infantry divisions, however, were still committed to securing the French Channel ports. The only available formations were the Canadian 4th and 1st Polish Armoured Divisions. Tanks were wholly unsuitable for canal country, and the Canadians’ infantry support was very weak. When the Algonquin Regiment set out in assault boats to cross the Leopold Canal and clear its north bank in advance of an armoured thrust, the unit met disaster. German counter-attacks battered its frail bridgehead into submission. On 14 September the survivors retired, having lost twenty-nine men killed, fifty-eight wounded and sixty-six taken prisoner—42 per cent of the battalion’s already depleted strength. The retreating Canadians were ferried back across the canal under heavy fire by volunteers among their German prisoners, who seemed eager not to be deprived of the privilege of captivity.

Tactical responsibility for this débâcle was divided. General Harry Crerar, commander of First Canadian Army, was poorly regarded by his British colleagues—“quite unfit to command troops,” in Montgomery’s withering words. Montgomery lambasted Crerar on the evening of 3 September for having missed an army commanders’ meeting earlier that day, because the Canadian was attending a memorial service for the victims of the disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe. “The C-in-C intimated that . . . the Canadian aspect of the Dieppe ceremonial was of no importance compared to getting on with the war.” Crerar’s deputy, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, Canada’s outstanding soldier of the campaign, from the outset identified the importance of seizing the Scheldt approaches. He urged this on Crerar, suggesting that the French ports were a far less urgent priority. But after the Canadian general’s bruising encounter on 3 September he showed no appetite for renewed debate with his army-group commander: “Crerar refused to raise the issue with Monty.” The consequence was that most of the Canadians persisted with the marginal task of clearing encircled French ports of Germans, while the Scheldt approaches received nothing like the urgent commitment they needed.

It was acknowledged that the Canadians’ mission would require stronger forces. The operation was abandoned until men became available. Amazingly, for three weeks the Germans were left in peace to fortify their positions. This was the first of many instances of lethargy that would dog the Allied campaign. In the happy hangover that followed victory in France, 21st Army Group acted ineffectually. The contrast is extraordinary between the sluggishness of the victorious Allies and the energy of the shattered Wehrmacht. Whatever the requirements of rest and resupply, again and again the Allies paid with the lives of their men for an insouciant attitude to time. The Germans used each day of delay to reinforce their positions, and thus to increase their capacity to resist when an attack belatedly came.

Montgomery, never eager to acknowledge error, nonetheless admitted afterwards that the Antwerp–Scheldt disaster—and it was indeed a strategic disaster—was among his most serious blunders of the war: “a bad mistake—I underestimated the difficulties of opening up the approaches to Antwerp . . . I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr. I was wrong.” The field-marshal’s Chief of Staff, the highly respected Freddie de Guingand, was exhausted and in poor health. De Guingand “blamed himself specifically for the delay in gaining early use of . . . Antwerp.” Yet Brigadier Charles Richardson, who was also serving on Montgomery’s staff, detected in the field-marshal at this time a diminishing receptiveness to counsel, as he “grew steadily more aloof and remote.” The fumbled handling of Antwerp was among the principal causes of Allied failure to break into Germany in 1944. It was not merely that the port was unavailable for the shipment of supplies; through two months that followed, a large part of Montgomery’s forces had to be employed upon a task that could have been accomplished in days if the necessary energy and “grip” been exercised at the beginning of September, when the enemy was incapable of resistance.

All along the front, the Germans now began to improvise a defence with the energy and ingenuity which they invariably displayed in such circumstances. At the heart of Germany’s extraordinary fighting performance in the last year of the Second World War was the Kampfgruppe, the “battle group,” an ad-hoc assembly of infantry and armour, army and Luftwaffe, flak and service personnel, cooks and laundrymen, placed under the command of the most senior available officer. “Transport, signals and heavy equipment were almost non-existent,” observed a British Second Army intelligence report. “. . . Battle groups were formed from regiments or from stragglers and were named after their commanding officers; they varied in strength from 100 to 3,000. Many went into battle so quickly that the men did not know the name of their battle group. Food and ammunition were short, but some of these groups fought with great and at times fanatical determination.” No one pretended that such formations were satisfactory substitutes for the balanced divisions deployed by the Allies. Yet the achievements of the Kampfgruppen were considerable. Battle groups lacked the coherence, transport and artillery support to mount major attacks. But in defence—and defence was now the business of the German Army—their contribution was critical to Hitler’s survival through the months ahead.

THE DASH ACROSS France and Belgium created a crisis for the supply of the Allied armies. In Patton’s legendary phrase: “My men can eat their belts, but my tanks gotta have gas.” An American heavy armoured division embraced 4,200 vehicles of all kinds, and required a combat load of 300,000 gallons of fuel, equivalent to 300 GMC trucks each carrying 1,000 gallons in five-gallon cans. By early September, American spearheads were operating more than 300 miles from their only source of supply, the beaches and small ports of Brittany and Normandy. Allied pre-invasion bombing had systematically devastated the French rail system. The British had passionately opposed the Americans’ August landing in the South of France. Yet Marseilles was to prove an invaluable asset, because the rail links of southern France were much less heavily damaged than those of the north. Supplies were soon moving more easily to the American armies from the Mediterranean than through the Channel ports.

In the short term, however, almost every shell, gallon of fuel and ration pack had to be shipped by road or—in dire circumstances and at huge cost—by air. The U.S. Transportation Corps in 1943 had demanded 240 truck companies for the campaign in Europe. Only 160 companies were allocated, of which most were equipped with light trucks, rather than the heavy vehicles the truckers had wanted. The British found themselves handicapped by an inexcusable technical failure. In September, 1,400 three-ton Austin trucks had to be withdrawn from service with Montgomery’s armies because of faulty pistons. This deficiency was found to extend to every available replacement engine. Unlike the Americans, who equipped their armies with standard vehicle types using readily interchangeable spare parts, the British Army was dependent on contracts with a wide variety of civilian vehicle manufacturers. In consequence, the armed forces were obliged to service some 600 different models, which created chronic difficulties. Around Antwerp, Montgomery’s armies were obliged for a time to commandeer thousands of horse-drawn wagons abandoned by the Wehrmacht, to make good its shortage of vehicles for the haulage of supplies.

Waste was prodigious, and contributed mightily to Allied logistical difficulties. Everywhere the armies went, in their wake lay great trails of discarded equipment and supplies. After coming upon a heap of 650 abandoned overcoats and 200 gas cans, the commanding general of the U.S. 36th Infantry Division lamented men’s “utter disregard of property responsibility.” Each day of the campaign, the U.S. Army lost 1,200 small arms and 5,000 tyres. The roads and fields of Europe were strewn with discarded American ration packs, and especially the detested powdered lemon juice. Of twenty-two million fuel jerrycans shipped to France since D-Day, half had vanished by September.

It was a remarkable feat to move some 89,939 tons of supplies by road to the armies between 25 August and 6 September, but the achievements of the “Red Ball Express” trucking columns have been much exaggerated. They consumed 300,000 gallons of gasoline a day on their own account, and reckless abuse of vehicles disabled them at a frightening pace—700 fifty-hundredweight trucks were written off for every week of the Red Ball’s operation. Each “division slice” of the U.S. Army required 650 tons of supply a day—more than three times the German allocation—to keep it eating and fighting, which translated into a total of 18,600 tons of supply a day for the U.S. armies in the first half of October, rising to 20,750 by that month’s end. An armoured division required 25,000 gallons of fuel a day to keep rolling, never mind fighting. Even an infantry division consumed 6,500 gallons. There were serious maintenance problems. By mid-September, the U.S. 3rd Armored Division possessed only some seventy-five “runners” out of its established tank strength of 232, a shortfall matched in most other formations. In the ten days ending 7 September, the British 7th Armoured Division lost twelve tanks to enemy action, and thirty-eight to mechanical breakdown; 11th Armoured Division lost six to the enemy and forty-four to breakdown.

Patton’s tanks reached the Moselle after staging the longest and fastest drive across France made by Allied forces. On 2 September, however, their fuel supplies dried up. Third Army received just 25,390 gallons, when its divisions needed at least 450,000 gallons to resume their advance. Eisenhower’s planners examined Patton’s case for giving his formations overriding priority for fuel. If they did so, it seemed possible that he could get some ten or twelve divisions to the Rhine. But all the most vital strategic objectives were in northern Germany, rather than the south where Patton’s path lay. A drive by Third Army would leave its flanks open across 300 miles of hostile territory. Even when Germany’s forces were so desperately reduced, given the Wehrmacht’s genius for counter-attack, there seemed an overwhelming likelihood that American hubris would be punished.

Third Army received sufficient fuel through mid-September to establish precarious bridgeheads across the Moselle. It was denied licence, however, to attempt any substantial strategic advance for the rest of that month. Patton fumed: “I am being attacked on both fronts, but not by the Germans.” Here was weakness in the Allied Supreme Command. If Eisenhower did not intend Patton to drive on into Germany, he should have halted Third Army at the Meuse, and diverted its fuel supplies to Hodges’s First Army, much of which was immobilized, yet which possessed a vastly better prospect of penetrating Hitler’s West Wall. Patton was delighted when one of his formations hijacked a load of fuel destined for First Army, yet in truth such action was recklessly irresponsible. Patton said to Bradley on 14 September, “Don’t call me till after dark,” as he strove to entangle his Third Army so deeply on the Moselle front that Eisenhower would feel obliged to support its operations. Far from being matter for laughter, this was a grotesque way to allow any subordinate commander to drive strategy from the bottom. Montgomery was wrong about many things, but he was surely right that grip and discipline were essential at the summit of the Allied armies. Patton’s crossings of the Moselle in early September were a waste of resources unless they conformed to a coherent SHAEF strategy. Third Army was allowed to parade the eagerness and egotism of its commander, at great cost to the interests of the other American armies. Likewise, Eisenhower allocated a million gallons of fuel to forces besieging Brest on the French Atlantic coast, a further dispersal of vital resources in favour of a marginal objective.

It has become a cliché of the north-west Europe campaign that the Allies’ difficulties of supply were insuperable, given their lack of an operational big port in France. Yet for most of the war the United States displayed a genius for overcoming logistical obstacles, surmounting shortages that seemed intractable to the weary and impoverished British. Why did that genius fail in September 1944? The officer in overall charge of supply for the Allied armies was among the least impressive senior soldiers America sent to Europe in the Second World War. General John C. H. Lee was regarded even by his colleagues as vain, self-important, self-indulgent and undisciplined. Patton dismissed him as “a glib liar.” Lee was colloquially known as “Jesus Christ,” the only American general to wear stars on both the front and back of his helmet. There was immense anger within the fighting army when it was learned that Lee had descended upon Paris following its liberation and established himself and his sprawling empire of bureaucrats in sybaritic comfort, occupying no fewer than 167 of the French capital’s hotels. There was a disease among the service units of the Allied armies, from which Lee was the most notorious sufferer, known as “Paris fever.” At the most critical period of the Allied supply crisis, Lee allocated transport to ship to the city 11,000 men and 560,000 square feet of hutted accommodation for his own headquarters. “The movement naturally produced strong criticism from combat commanders,” the U.S. official historian comments drily.

In late August and September, senior American officers believed that Lee, the man responsible for finding urgent means to carry the armies into Germany, was chiefly preoccupied with his own creature comfort. A U.S. Army report of 1 December condemned in withering terms the “lethargy and smugness” that had been displayed throughout the campaign by some ComZ—Communications Zone—personnel. “Lee . . . never ceased to be a controversial figure,” in the understated words of the official historian.

It is a serious criticism of Eisenhower that he failed to focus upon Lee’s shortcomings, and to replace him, when the Supreme Commander was foremost among those who recognized the tyrannical influence of logistics upon the battlefield. General Everett Hughes, ETO (European Theater of Operations) Chief of Staff, puzzled over Eisenhower’s indulgence of Lee and observed sourly to his diary: “Alexander the Great loved flatterers.” Even an administrator of genius might have been dismayed by the supply problems facing the Allied armies in September 1944. But Lee’s failure to prepare contingency plans for a rapid Allied advance seemed deplorable to field commanders. Again and again, U.S. Army inspectors uncovered scandalous lapses and snarl-ups in the supply system. Bradley urged irritably: “Many of our ground forces have done the impossible; let [ComZ] try the impossible for a while. I am not convinced they are doing all they could.” Likewise Patton: “Hell, have ’em get off their asses and work the way our troops have.”

An energetic and imaginative officer occupying the post so indolently filled by Lee might have found ways to move fuel and supplies to the Allied spearheads in eastern France, to maintain the pace of their advance. This could have been decisive, in enabling Eisenhower’s armies to exploit their summer successes before the Germans regrouped. In the event, the momentum triumphantly achieved in August was tragically lost in September. Hitler’s armies used every day of grace they were granted, to create defensive lines on the borders of Germany against the Allied host.

MONTGOMERY TRIUMPHANT

IN THE EARLY days of September, there occurred one of the most notorious of many confrontations between Eisenhower and Montgomery. The fact that these did not end in a disastrous fracture of Allied relations reflected the self-control and political discipline of the Supreme Commander. For all Eisenhower’s limitations as a strategist, his wisdom and generosity of spirit in the management of the Anglo-American alliance were worthy of the highest respect. He recognized the need to defer whenever possible to the sensitivities of the British, battered and wearied by five years of war, bleakly conscious of their shrinking power. Eisenhower would never jeopardize the vital interests of the United States, but he would go far to avoid trampling upon the fragile self-esteem of the British nation. As far as possible, he humoured the conceit of its most famous soldier.

The British commander was a highly gifted professional, “an efficient little shit,” as one of his own generals confided to the Canadian Harry Crerar. Montgomery considered clearly and planned meticulously. “The difference between him and other commanders I had known was that he actually thought, as a scientist or a scholar thinks,” wrote Goronwy Rees, an academic who served on Montgomery’s wartime staff. Montgomery was acknowledged as a master of the setpiece operation. Whereas Eisenhower called for options from his planners, then made a choice, the British soldier believed that it was the business of generals to determine courses of action, and then invite staffs to execute them. If his vanity was a crippling weakness, it was balanced by a remarkable ability to inspire the confidence of his subordinates from top to bottom of the British Army. “We had total faith in Monty,” said Lieutenant Roy Dixon of the South Staffordshire Yeomanry. “He achieved results, and he kept a lot of us alive.” Montgomery retained the trust of his own soldiers until the end of the war, assisted by the fact that only a handful of British and American officers were aware of the depth of his egomania and the gravity of his wrangles with the Supreme Commander. Doubts persisted, however, about Montgomery’s capacity for flexible thinking, for making a rapid response to evolving opportunities. He had battered several smaller German armies into defeat, but he had never managed a wholly successful envelopment, cutting off a retreating enemy. He possessed a shrewd understanding of what could, and could not, realistically be demanded of a British citizen army. But he had done nothing on the battlefield to suggest that his talents, or indeed those of his troops, deserved eulogy. The British had fought workmanlike campaigns in North Africa, Italy and France since their victory at El Alamein in November 1942. But their generals had nowhere shown the genius displayed by Germany’s commanders in France in 1940, and in many battles since.

Montgomery himself was a strange man, respected by his subordinates yet often causing them bewilderment and dismay. Like many able soldiers of all nationalities, notably including Patton, MacArthur and the leading Germans, the field-marshal possessed an uncongenial personality. Monastically dedicated to the conduct of war, he seemed oblivious of the loathing he inspired among his peers. After the field-marshal relieved Eighth Army’s armoured corps commander back in North African days, the victim declared in his London club: “I’ve just been sacked because there isn’t enough room in the desert for two cads as big as me and Monty.” A member of Montgomery’s staff told a bizarre story from the north-west Europe campaign. One of the field-marshal’s young liaison officers returned to duty after recovering from wounds, and found himself summoned to Montgomery’s caravan. He was ordered to remove his clothes. The bemused young man stood naked at attention before his commander, who observed that he wished to ensure that he was fully fit for duty again. “Right!” said Montgomery after a few moments, in his usual clipped bark. “You can dress and go now!” According to one of his staff, that episode caused considerable surprise even at a headquarters well accustomed to “Master’s” foibles.

Montgomery’s most serious weakness, which he shared with other prominent British officers, stemmed from a refusal to acknowledge that in north-west Europe it was now essential for the British to defer to the overwhelming dominance of the United States. Sir Alan Brooke, senior British Chief of Staff and Montgomery’s mentor, matched the disdain of 21st Army Group’s commander for American military judgement, though he concealed his sentiments better. Sir Arthur Tedder, Eisenhower’s deputy, quailed before the shameless nationalism of the British media, which he feared “was sowing the seeds of a grave split between the Allies.” The absence of common courtesy, far less diplomacy, in Montgomery’s dealings with the most senior American commanders was extraordinary. His status as a British national hero caused him to consider himself beyond any risk of dismissal. Whatever the doubts of others about his limitations, 21st Army Group’s commander was confident that he possessed the stuff of genius, while the Americans remained rank amateurs in the conduct of war.

Still bitterly resentful that, after exercising overall command of Allied ground forces in Normandy, on 1 September he had been obliged to surrender this authority to Eisenhower, he urged that it was time for a big decision. Instead of merely allowing the Allied armies to advance on a broad front towards Germany, it would be vastly more effective, he said in a signal to SHAEF on 3 September, to throw the full weight of Allied logistics behind a single heavy punch: “I consider we have now reached a stage where one really powerful and full-blooded thrust towards BERLIN is likely to get there and thus end the German war.” This would be commanded, of course, by himself, and involve a drive for Germany on an axis north of the Ruhr by some forty British and American divisions.

This proposal was certainly not politically viable, was probably also logistically impossible and militarily unsound. Characteristically, however, Eisenhower did not reject the field-marshal’s proposal with the clarity which was essential if any message was to penetrate Monty’s rhino-hide skin. “There was a confusion of purpose at the very moment when the Wehrmacht was desperately piecing together ad hoc divisions from the remnants of the old,” wrote Brigadier Charles Richardson, one of Montgomery’s senior staff officers. “It can be argued that in view of the prize at stake—victory in Europe in 1944—the attempt [to drive for Germany on a northern axis] should have been made in late August while the Wehrmacht was still reeling. That it was not made was due primarily to the formidable political obstacles barring the way to such a decision; these were brushed aside by Montgomery but fully appreciated by Freddie [de Guingand, 21st Army Group’s Chief of Staff].”

Eisenhower never for a moment accepted the British view about a “single thrust” in the north. He made plain, in terms which everyone save Montgomery understood, that whatever advances the British made in the north, U.S. forces would meanwhile address the Siegfried Line further south, on the German frontier. At a big press conference in London on 31 August, he asserted that “General Montgomery’s forces were expected to beat the Germans in the north; General Bradley’s to defeat them in the centre; and the Mediterranean forces, under General Jacob Devers, to press from the south.” Harry Butcher, Eisenhower’s aide, described his master’s plan as being “to hustle all our forces up to the Rhine.” Nowhere in his career did the Supreme Commander reveal talent as a battlefield general. Few even among his biographers attempt to stake such a claim for him. Yet he displayed a greatness as chief manager of an alliance army for which he deserves the gratitude of posterity. No plausible candidate has ever been suggested who could have managed the personalities under his command with Eisenhower’s patience and charm.

Montgomery was surely correct in supposing that a ground-force commander was needed, to provide the focus and impetus of which Eisenhower was incapable. But none of the available candidates, least of all himself, could credibly fill the role. To understand what took place in north-west Europe in 1944–45, it is important to note that no American or British general possessed the experience in manoeuvring great armies which was commonplace among their Russian and German counterparts. American and British staff colleges before the Second World War taught officers to fight battles involving tens of thousands of men, not millions. Many times Churchill was driven to despair by the difficulty of identifying British commanders capable of matching those of the Wehrmacht. “Have you not got a single general . . . who can win battles?” the prime minister cried out to Brooke early in 1942. The U.S. Army produced at least five outstanding corps commanders, whereas the British and Canadians boasted only two officers at corps level—Horrocks and Simonds—who could be considered competent. Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, commanding VIII Corps, did nothing for his staff’s confidence in him when he observed cheerfully in Holland one day: “Whatever balls-ups I make, chaps, I know you’ll see me through.” At divisional level too, the Americans were better served than the British, but it is hard to argue that either ally’s general officers matched those of Germany. Exceptional professional skills coupled with absolute ruthlessness rendered many German—and Russian—generals repugnant human beings but formidable warriors. The democracies recruited their generals from societies in which military achievement was deemed a doubtful boon, if not an embarrassment. The American and British armies in the Second World War paid a high price for the privilege of the profoundly anti-militaristic ethos of their nations.

Montgomery was a superb planner and trainer, but he was always most comfortable directing a static battle, of the kind with which he had become familiar a world war earlier. He failed repeatedly in exploitation. Bradley was a steady, likeable officer who possessed solid virtues as commander of 12th Army Group, but showed no greater gifts than Eisenhower in the creation of grand strategy. In the last stages of the war, he became prey to jealousies and frustrations which caused him not infrequently, and almost literally, to sulk in his tent. Only Patton showed himself at ease in the imaginative direction of large forces. Had he not been disgraced for the notorious “slapping incidents” in Sicily* 3—behaviour curiously characteristic of a German or Soviet general rather than an American one—he might have commanded 12th Army Group in north-west Europe. Patton’s critics point out that he suffered as many difficulties as other American generals, in persuading Third Army’s infantry to show the determination against tough German opposition to match their commander’s vaulting ambition. Patton’s streak of recklessness and absolute lack of diplomatic skills disqualified him from the highest commands. Yet at 12th Army Group or at First Army, he might have provided an impetus that was to prove sorely lacking between September 1944 and May 1945.

The management of alliances is very hard. Battlefield decisions must be constantly subordinated to national sensitivities. Marlborough suffered huge frustrations alongside the Dutch in the eighteenth century, echoed a hundred years later by those of Wellington among the Spanish, yet they were responsible for forces scarcely larger than a corps in the armies of the Second World War. It has sometimes been suggested that, if MacArthur had been transferred from the Pacific to north-west Europe in 1944, he could have provided the strategic vision which Eisenhower lacked. Yet MacArthur’s ignorance of Europe and his loathing for the British rendered him an implausible candidate for alliance command. Some historians of the Second World War have underrated the animosity, jealousy and mistrust between senior American and British officers, which it required Eisenhower’s rare diplomatic gifts to overcome. The cautious Kansan regarded the avoidance of disaster as his most vital responsibility. He sought to defeat the German armies in north-west Europe by a measured series of advances. He saw no virtue in excessive haste, and certainly none in excessive casualties. He had been given a mandate to accomplish the defeat of Germany which took no heed of political matters, foremost among these the shape of post-war Europe. Eisenhower handled himself throughout as a corporate chairman rather than a director of armies.

One of Patton’s biographers has described how Third Army’s commander felt “almost with a physical pain the absence of consistent direction from the top . . . trying to follow a conductor who did not quite know or failed to comprehend the delicate nuances of a score.” Yet it remains debatable whether even the greatest of captains could have steered the citizen soldiers of the Anglo-American alliance into Germany in 1944 faster than the slowest ship in the convoy was capable of steaming. More will be said of this below. Just once in the entire campaign did Eisenhower endorse an imaginative, dramatic initiative to end the war quickly. In September 1944, he astonished his own staff, and deeply irked his American subordinates, by supporting a plan presented by Montgomery for a lightning British dash to the Rhine.

Despite Eisenhower’s dislike for Montgomery, it is reasonable to surmise that somewhere in Ike’s heart in the autumn of 1944 was a recognition that the British general knew more about the battlefield direction of armies than he did himself. Montgomery’s behaviour in Normandy had been abrasive. Yet the British officer had managed that battle with notable competence, without losing his nerve amid savage fighting and some alarming setbacks. “I am no Montgomery-lover,” wrote Bedell-Smith, Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, after the war, “but I give him his full due and believe that for certain types of operation he is without an equal . . . Normandy is such an operation.” If this proverbially cautious British commander now believed that he could achieve a bold stroke against the Germans, it must be worth the gamble to let him try. The rewards of success could be immense.

The decision was made at a meeting on 10 September. Eisenhower accepted the British field-marshal’s plan for a thrust through Holland to seize a bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem, opening a path to the Ruhr. For this purpose, the British would be reinforced by SHAEF’s strategic reserve, the First Airborne Army awaiting orders around airfields in England. The British would also be granted a special allocation of fuel and supplies, diverted from the American armies. Eisenhower and his staff were bemused to hear from Montgomery soon after the 10 September meeting that, if the Rhine crossing at Arnhem could be secured, he now envisaged a northern drive through the Ruhr towards Berlin by some sixteen or eighteen divisions. SHAEF found it difficult to imagine that such a relatively small force could break the German front, any more than Patton’s Third Army could make a war-winning advance on its own. The logisticians also doubted whether even sixteen divisions could be fuelled and supplied in Germany without the use of Antwerp.

Omar Bradley was among those who urged Eisenhower to forget the Arnhem plan and commit Montgomery to clearance of the Antwerp approaches. But SHAEF authorization for the airborne operation had been granted and was not rescinded. As late as 15 September, the Supreme Commander himself remained not merely optimistic but euphoric. He believed that within a week or two at most the Allied armies would have closed up on the Rhine. “The Germans will have stood in defense of the Ruhr and Frankfurt, and will have had a sharp defeat inflicted upon them . . . Clearly Berlin is the main prize,” he wrote in a circular to his commanders. “There is no doubt whatever, in my mind, that we should concentrate all our energies on a rapid thrust.” Bradley’s aide likewise wrote on 15 September: “Brad and Patton agree neither will be too surprised if we are on the Rhine in a week . . . General anxious to slam on through to Berlin.”

THE STRUGGLE TO destroy Hitler brought together in Europe an extraordinary mingling of humanity. World war had displaced tens of millions of people, some by choice and most by compulsion. Everywhere the shadow of conflict extended, there were men, women and sometimes children who had been arbitrarily removed from their natural abodes and relocated upon alien soil, among people they had never known before. Some in consequence found themselves in rags, others in uniform. The war created a host of temporary new loyalties and placed all manner of citizens of many nations in unfamiliar circumstances, united only by the demands of defeating the enemy and, if possible, surviving to go home. Within Eisenhower’s huge command, there were men from every corner of the United States and the British Isles, as well as Frenchmen, Poles, Canadians, Belgians, Dutchmen and a smattering of representatives from scores of other nations. Consider one small unit, the RAF’s 268 Squadron, flying Typhoons on reconnaissance missions for First Canadian Army: in September 1944 this comprised seven Canadians, two Australians, three Trinidadians, one Maltese, one Scot and one Welshman. They were later joined by two Poles and an Indian. It is little wonder that such men emerged from their wartime experience as a very internationally minded generation.

Eisenhower’s forces were now formed into three army groups, containing twenty-eight American divisions, eighteen British and Canadian, one Polish, and eight makeshift French formations, manned chiefly by undisciplined maquisards. The latter were included in the order of battle for their political rather than military value. The Germans in the west mustered forty-eight infantry and fifteen panzer and panzergrenadier divisions, but these possessed only 25 per cent of their proper strength and equipment. The Allies outnumbered the Germans by twenty to one in tanks. Against the Luftwaffe’s western strength of 573 serviceable combat aircraft, the Allies could deploy some 14,000.

Yet the Allies’ exhilaration about the inroads they had made upon their enemy’s strength in Normandy might have been moderated had they paused to consider that Hitler still disposed of more than ten million uniformed men. The Wehrmacht’s strength had peaked at 6.5 million in 1943, and now stood at 3.4 million, but that of the Waffen SS was still increasing, towards a summit of 830,000 at the beginning of 1945. Millions of foreigners from Hitler’s empire had been armed and garbed in German uniform, and some fought with the desperation of the damned. It was true that many of the Germans being mobilized were untrained, poorly armed and not yet embodied in coherent formations. A million men wasted rations in the uniform of Göring’s Luftwaffe, which in the air was almost moribund. A large proportion of German recruits would have been rejected for service in the American or British armies on grounds of age or physical infirmity. The Russians discovered that among their vast summer haul of captives was a Wehrmacht soldier who had spent two years in a British prison camp before being repatriated as unfit for military service. The Volkssturm, Germany’s Home Guard, was a minimal asset. Yet granted the German genius for transforming the most unpromising human material into serviceable fighting units, the sheer mass of Germany’s surviving men at arms demanded more respect than it received from Allied commanders in early September 1944. Even in the sixth year of the Second World War, some senior commanders experienced difficulty in grasping the titanic scale of the conflict, and the resources available to a ruthless and boundlessly ingenious enemy.

The Allies possessed overwhelming material advantages, above all in the might of the Red Army. But fighting soldiers were quicker to perceive the gravity of the task they still faced than those at rear headquarters. The optimism of Allied commanders was fed by a daily diet of intercepted signals between Germany’s generals, proclaiming their desperation. At the sharp end, however, renewed fighting along the Allied front cooled optimism. On 14 September, Colonel Turner-Cain wrote in his diary: “The national press is at last more sober in its estimate of when the war would end. They now talk of three months instead of next week. Their idiotic optimism had a peculiar effect on men’s morale, and one could feel them saying to themselves: ‘Why should I put myself at risk of being killed or wounded if the war is to end next week?’ Hence they were a bit sticky about doing anything aggressive.” The British forces’ shortage of manpower, which was to dog their operations from Normandy to the Elbe, was already exercising its baleful influence. Most companies in Turner-Cain’s battalion were reduced to two officers, and some to two platoons. Replacements proved to be a ragbag of men unwillingly transferred from the Service Corps, military police and disbanded units.

Eisenhower sustained hope in Montgomery’s breast about a British charge into Germany by writing to him: “My own choice of routes for making the all-out offensive . . . is from the Ruhr to Berlin.” Perhaps, after all, the Supreme Commander would grant 21st Army Group’s commander his triumphal march on Hitler’s capital. It would be time enough to review grand strategy, however, when it was seen whether Eisenhower’s “choice” was attainable by way of a British bridge across the Rhine. While the commanders of America’s armies fumed and fretted about the gasoline famine which Montgomery’s grand play had forced upon them, in the third week of September 1944 Western Allied leaders’ eyes focused upon a single road to the prim, neat Dutch town of Arnhem.

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