“Do Not Let Us Pretend We Are All Right”

THE autumnal struggles at Arnhem and Aachen leached any undue optimism from the Allied high command, except among those too far from the battlefield to know better. The Charlie-Charlies in October ordered SHAEF to immediately establish direct links with Moscow “in anticipation of [the] approach of Allied and Russian forces within the very near future,” even though those forces remained more than five hundred miles apart. George Marshall arrived in France for a visit and proclaimed, “We have them licked. All they have is a thin shell and when we break that, they are finished.” Beguiled by dubious intelligence to the effect that organized German resistance was unlikely to last beyond December 1, the Army chief subsequently advocated a full-bore offensive to win the war in Europe by year’s end. Marshall proposed “playing everything for a conclusion,” even as he began earmarking divisions to fight in the Pacific.

Eisenhower took pains to dampen such expectations. “We have facing us now one of our most difficult periods of the entire European war,” he warned Marshall in early October. “Deteriorating weather is going to place an increased strain on morale.” To his mother in Kansas, he wrote: “Most people that write to me these days want to know when the war in Europe is going to be over.… I wish I knew. It is a long, hard, dreary piece of work.”

Eisenhower now commanded fifty-eight divisions, including those in southern France, yet a month after crossing the German frontier no Allied soldier stood deeper than twelve miles into Germany. Enemy casualties were accruing at four thousand a day, but Allied losses since June 6 equaled a third of a million. Logistics were “in a bad state,” the supreme commander told Marshall, “reminiscent of the early days in Tunisia.” Half a dozen U.S. divisions remained in the rear because of insufficient means to support them on the battlefront; moreover, SHAEF logisticians calculated that even if the American armies reached the Rhine near the Ruhr, no more than twenty divisions could be sustained in combat.

To further explain his plight, Eisenhower and his logisticians composed a long essay for the Pentagon on combat realities in Europe. Uniforms wore out “at a rate almost incomprehensible to civilians,” twice as fast as U.S. clothing manufacturers could make them. Overcoats, shoes, mess kits, and blankets were also consumed at double the War Department’s estimates. Food demands through the winter—even if the war ended, soldiers still had to eat—would require the shipment of 3.5 billion pounds from the United States, equivalent to 340 loaded Liberty ships. “Beef requirements for European theater will call for the slaughtering of … approximately 4,000 [cattle] every day,” Eisenhower wrote. “Dehydrated egg requirements amount to the equivalent of 2½ billion fresh eggs, or a daily requirement of 6½ million.” Tent canvas was short by 100 million square feet. Just the demand for paper was staggering: the U.S. Army since the liberation of Paris had been forced to print ten million maps on the flip side of captured German maps. (Many depicted southern England, having been produced for Operation SEA LION, the aborted 1940 invasion of Britain; sheafs of these had been found in an abandoned enemy depot in Liège.)

The most desperate need was for ammunition, which was expended at a rate exceeding two tons every minute of every hour of every day, despite incessant rationing in the second half of 1944. By late September, fewer than four rounds per day were available for the largest guns, such as the 8-inch howitzer. By early October, ammunition shortfalls were “truly critical” across the front, with many Third Army tubes down to a single shell per day—Patton wanted sixty—and 12th Army Group reported that supplies of artillery ammunition had “reached a state of almost complete collapse.” A “silence policy” in V Corps required guns to stand unused for more than a week.

The shortfall partly reflected an inability of U.S. plants to meet demand: a 155mm shell required forty separate manufacturing procedures. The more common 105mm howitzer ammunition was produced and shipped under twelve hundred different lot numbers, each with minor variations in propellant that affected accuracy. (First Army was to spend 25,000 man-hours in the early fall sorting jumbled ammunition to avoid catastrophic short barrages.) Shortages kept American armies largely on the defensive in October—attacking required more firepower than sitting—and Eisenhower blamed a dearth of heavy ammunition for delays in capturing Aachen. He broadcast an appeal to the home front for greater production, and the War Department dispatched veteran gunners to key plants for pep rallies under a program called “Firepower for Eisenhower.”

One senior American general believed that a one-third increase in artillery ammunition “would have saved many lives and shortened the war.” Yet General Lee’s COMZ insisted there was no shortage on the Continent, and indeed thousands of tons were stacked in Normandy depots and aboard several dozen ammunition ships, most of them waiting to unload. Lee had predicted that 150 ships would be discharged in October, but the actual number was less than 100. On October 20, 246 cargo vessels plied Continental waters; the wait for berths in various anchorages often lasted weeks, sometimes months. Entire fleets now served as floating warehouses for munitions and other matériel.

The War Department, trying to supply a global war with limited shipping, grew exasperated: in October, a cable warned SHAEF that “no further commodity-loaded ships” would be sent to Europe until empty ships began sailing home. Eisenhower was horrified, and more than two dozen Liberty ships were sent back to the United States, some before emptying their holds. To encourage stevedores and boost morale, Bronze Stars were handed out to efficient hatch crews, and band concerts serenaded workers on the docks.

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If only Antwerp were free. “We have captured a port which resembles Liverpool in size, but we cannot use it,” Montgomery had written in September. “If we could use it, all our maintenance troubles would disappear.” Eisenhower stressed freeing the Scheldt and opening the port “as an indispensable prerequisite for the final drive into Germany.” Even during MARKET GARDEN, the supreme commander had summoned twenty-three general officers to Versailles to discuss strategy—pleading the press of battle, Montgomery sent his chief of staff as a proxy—and to emphasize Antwerp “as a matter of urgency.” Eisenhower told Beetle Smith a week later, “I am terribly anxious about Antwerp.” Yet the supreme commander also insisted that both Montgomery and Bradley “must retain as first mission the gaining of the line of the Rhine north of Bonn as quickly as humanly possible.”

Montgomery had assigned clearing the Scheldt to the Canadian First Army, which included a British corps and the Polish 1st Armored Division, for a total of six divisions. Allied air attacks intensified against enemy targets on diamond-shaped Walcheren Island and the Beveland peninsula, which formed the Scheldt’s north shore. Allied ground troops squeezed the Breskens Pocket on the southern lip of the estuary, held by a formidable force of eleven thousand Germans, including Eastern Front veterans reinforced with both naval guns and seventy field artillery pieces. “The whole energies of the [Canadian] Army will be directed towards … Antwerp,” Montgomery decreed—yet he ordered the Canadians to simultaneously isolate the enemy garrison at Dunkirk and capture the occupied French ports of Boulogne and Calais. The latter ports eventually fell and the Breskens Pocket slowly shrank, but the MARKET GARDEN stalemate south of Arnhem allowed the German Fifteenth Army to shift reinforcements to the Scheldt defenses. With enemies still entrenched on both banks of the estuary, no Allied ship dared venture upstream.

Thus the days and weeks rolled by, and big-shouldered Antwerp remained dormant. “We need this place more than we need FDR,” Major General Everett Hughes wrote his wife. Although Montgomery acknowledged the port’s primacy, neither he nor Eisenhower demanded that all other tasks be subordinated to this one. Dempsey’s Second Army continued to look beyond the Rhine toward the Ruhr; control of a large port was a less urgent matter for the smaller British force. Even Field Marshal Brooke had doubts about Montgomery’s priorities. “Antwerp must be captured with the least possible delay,” he told his diary in London. “I feel that Monty’s strategy for once is at fault.” Montgomery would acknowledge as much after the war, conceding “a bad mistake on my part” in demanding too much of the Canadians. “I reckoned that the Canadian Army could do it while we were going for the Ruhr,” he added. “I was wrong.”

But in October 1944, the field marshal displayed no indulgence for those who questioned his judgment. Admiral Ramsay warned that to clear the Scheldt of mines would take weeks, even after German defenders were finally flicked from the banks of the waterway. “I think the army is not taking this operation seriously enough,” he told his diary in early October. After another SHAEF meeting, Ramsay wrote, “Monty made the startling announcement that we could take the Ruhr without Antwerp. This afforded me the cue I needed to lambaste him.… I let fly with all my guns at the faulty strategy we had allowed.” Montgomery took such criticism badly, and he accused the admiral of undercutting him. “Request you will ask Ramsay from me,” the field marshal wrote Eisenhower, “by what authority he makes wild statements to you concerning my operations about which he can know nothing.”

No less troublesome than the arcane issues of shipping and logistics were parallel questions of strategy and command. After a brief respite, Montgomery had again hectored Eisenhower over the supreme commander’s preference for the broad, multipronged assault on Germany first adopted in May. Even as MARKET GARDEN came unglued, the field marshal had pressed once more for a single axis, preferably that of 21st Army Group, with nine reinforcing divisions from the U.S. First Army also under his command. Montgomery proposed that other Allied forces “stop in place where they are,” donating transport and other war stuffs to his expedition. Eisenhower had tried to paper over the dispute by suggesting that his vision and Montgomery’s could be reconciled, but in late September the field marshal rebuffed him with a tart cable:

I can not agree that our concepts are the same.… If you want to get to the Ruhr you will have to put every single thing into the left hook and stop everything else. It is my opinion that if this is not done you will not get to the Ruhr.

Unchastened by the destruction of the 1st Airborne Division and the larger misadventure in Holland, Montgomery now overplayed his hand. During a private conference with George Marshall in Montgomery’s tidy caravan in Eindhoven on Sunday, October 8, the field marshal complained about a “lack of grip” since Eisenhower had taken field command of the campaign, with battles that were “ragged and disjointed.… We [have] now got ourselves into a real mess.” The chief of staff’s icy blue stare implied demurral. “Marshall listened but said little,” Montgomery subsequently wrote. “It was clear that he entirely disagreed.” Marshall later confessed to nearly losing his famous temper at what he termed Montgomery’s “overwhelming egotism.”

Eisenhower’s patience, too, finally wore thin. On the same Sunday that Marshall visited Eindhoven, SHAEF planners at Versailles warned that in failing to uncork the Scheldt “fifteen divisions are held impotent for lack of success in this relatively small operation.… Our advance into Germany may be delayed into spring.” As it happened, high winds that very day ripped up Cherbourg’s port and Mulberry B.

“This reemphasizes the supreme importance of Antwerp,” Eisenhower cabled Montgomery in an “eyes only” message on Monday:

Unless we have Antwerp producing by the middle of November our entire operations will come to a standstill. I must emphasize that, of all our operations on the entire front from Switzerland to the Channel, I consider Antwerp of the first importance.

Montgomery would assert that this was the first time Eisenhower had issued clear instructions on the matter, a claim the British official history subsequently judged “hardly justified.” More likely, given Eisenhower’s reluctance to issue unequivocal orders, it was the first time the field marshal had detected a tone of exasperation or even disapproval. “You can rely on me to do every single thing possible to get Antwerp opened,” Montgomery replied promptly, and on the same day he instructed the Canadians in his firmest directive yet that “the opening of this port will take priority over all other offensive operations.” Yet a week would pass before the Canadian army, clearly overmatched by the task at hand, was substantially reinforced, even though Eisenhower drove home his point with another testy cable on Tuesday:

Nothing that I may ever say or write with respect to future plans in our advance eastward is meant to indicate any lessening of the need for Antwerp, which I have always held as vital, and which has grown more pressing as we enter the bad weather period.

Instead of replying directly, Montgomery that day sent Beetle Smith a caustic sixteen-paragraph memorandum titled “Notes on Command in Western Europe.” Beginning with an assertion that “the present organization for command within the Allied forces in Western Europe is not satisfactory,” the paper lambasted Eisenhower’s generalship and proposed that he either move his headquarters forward to “take direct command of the operations against the Ruhr” or delegate field command in Europe to either Montgomery or Bradley. “I do not believe we have a good and sound organization for command and control,” the field marshal wrote.

It may be that political and national considerations prevent us having a sound organization. If this is the case I would suggest that we say so. Do not let us pretend we are all right, whereas actually we are very far from being all right.

Eisenhower waited three days to reply with his own thirteen-paragraph letter, carefully vetted by Marshall before the chief flew back to Washington on Friday. “The questions you raise are serious ones,” Eisenhower wrote. “However, they do not constitute the real issue now at hand. That issue is Antwerp.… The Antwerp operation does not involve the question of command in any slightest degree.” After pointing out the “woeful state” of American and French supply, and noting that “by comparison you are rich,” Eisenhower again reviewed the reasoning behind his preference for a broad attack arranged by army groups under his command.

Then the master bridge player laid down his trump card:

If you, as the senior commander in this theater of one of the great Allies, feel that my conceptions and directives are such as to endanger the success of operations, it is our duty to refer the matter to higher authority for any action they may choose to take, however drastic.

The threat could hardly be misconstrued: if a general was to be cashiered, it would not be Eisenhower. Montgomery promptly amended his battle plan so that “the whole of the available offensive power of Second Army will now be brought to bear” in scouring the approaches to Antwerp. To subordinates he cabled, “I must impress on army commanders that the early use of Antwerp is absolutely vital.… We must accept heavy casualties to get quick success.” The field marshal directed Second Army’s XII Corps to pivot toward the Scheldt from the western flank of the Nijmegen corridor, permitting the Canadians—whose advance had covered hardly a mile a day—to concentrate on the Breskens Pocket and the eastern avenues to Walcheren Island. Montgomery now had the weight of two armies squeezing the seven German divisions that had neutralized Antwerp.

To Eisenhower the field marshal wrote, “You will hear no more on the subject of command from me. I have given you my views and you have given your answer. That ends the matter.” He closed this pretty fiction with another: “Your very devoted and loyal subordinate, Monty.”

*   *   *

Dwight David Eisenhower turned fifty-four years old on Saturday, October 14. He celebrated with a joyride in his old Cadillac—a newer model from Detroit was somewhere in the hold of yet another ship waiting for a berth. With Kay Summersby behind the wheel, he had traveled from Versailles to Verdun to spend Friday night with Bradley before the two generals pushed on the next morning to the Belgian town of Verviers, twenty miles southwest of the intensifying street battle in Aachen.

The U.S. First Army headquarters encampment rambled through the muddy grounds of a dilapidated three-story château, where an honor guard greeted Eisenhower, Bradley, and his three army commanders—Patton, Hodges, and the new Ninth Army commander, Lieutenant General William H. Simpson—and George VI, who was touring the front. After lunch in a spartan dining hall, Patton sipped his coffee, puffed on a cigar, and entertained the table with war stories from North Africa. “I must have shot a dozen Arabs myself,” he told the monarch, provoking derisive hoots of laughter.

Bidding farewell to king and comrades, Eisenhower and Bradley then drove south through the somber Ardennes, past Belgian towns that soon would be all too familiar: Malmédy, St.-Vith, Vielsalm. In bucolic Bastogne, the smell of fresh bread wafted from the cooling racks of a mobile Army bakery. Farmers stacked hay bales for the coming winter and dairymen herded their cows to the barn, hardly glancing at the speeding limousine that carried the most famous general in Europe, if not in all the war-torn world.

This was Eisenhower’s third consecutive birthday overseas. A profile in Time that month observed that he “has not visibly aged … but he gives a subtle impression of having grown bigger as a man and as a commander. For lack of exercise, he is slightly thicker around the middle and there are often tired lines under his snapping blue eyes.… Even in times of crisis, he is relaxed, genial and confident on the surface—whatever goes on underneath.” True enough: he was thicker, confident, tired. Certainly he had grown as a commander since his fifty-second birthday, spent on Grosvenor Square in London on the eve of TORCH, when they were all callow and unblooded; or since his fifty-third, passed at the Hôtel St.-Georges in Algiers while reading dispatches from the swollen Volturno River, where the arduous Allied attack north of Naples suggested what lay ahead for those bent on a winter campaign in Italy.

Yet even Time’s omniscience missed nuances in the man and in the general he had become. He seemed transparent and simple but was neither. A reviewer of his published diary fragments long after the war would be struck by a “closed, calculating quality”; the historian Eric Larrabee later described him as “a veiled man” who was “so seemingly forthright, so ready to volunteer his thoughts, yet in the end so secretive, so protective of his purposes and the hidden processes of an iron logic behind them.” Every commander wore a mask, and Eisenhower wore his while still conveying sincerity, rectitude, and humanity. “I have a feeling that he was a far more complicated man than he seemed to be,” wrote Don Whitehead, “a man who shaped events with such subtlety that he left others thinking that they were the architects of those events. And he was satisfied to leave it that way.”

He would never be a Great Captain, and perhaps his war had grown too big for such an archaic figure. Eisenhower was romantic enough to regret this failing: a lifelong admirer of Hannibal, he privately hoped that a double envelopment of the Ruhr would echo the Carthaginian destruction of the Romans at Cannae. He had long recognized that his task was not to be a field marshal, but rather to orchestrate a fractious multinational coalition, to be “chairman of the board”—the phrase was his—of the largest martial enterprise on earth. The master politician Franklin Roosevelt had chosen him as supreme commander from among thirteen hundred U.S. Army generals because he was not only a “natural leader,” in the president’s judgment, but also a military man with exceptional political instincts. E. J. Kingston McCloughry, a British air vice marshal who worked at SHAEF, wrote that Eisenhower “had a genius of getting along with most people, combining the art of persuasion and of inspiring good will.”

He was by temperament a reconciler, an adjudicator, a compromiser; the recent contretemps with Montgomery showed Eisenhower as a man willing, perhaps too willing, to split the difference, to turn the other cheek. Without doubt his orders could be opaque and imprecise, either because he failed to see the battlefield clearly or because he was reluctant to intrude on subordinate prerogatives—as in the Antwerp debacle, or in the incomplete attempts to annihilate the enemy at Messina and Falaise. In addition to his accolade for the supreme commander, Kingston McCloughry also damned with faint praise, deeming him “shrewd without being subtle, and understanding without being profound.… Perhaps Eisenhower’s greatest advantage compared with, say, Montgomery, was that he was all too conscious of his own limitations.”

And yet who could gainsay the greatness that had begun to enfold him? Churchill recognized that “no one knew better than he how to stand close to a tremendous event without impairing the authority he had delegated to others.” Knowing full well how corrosive forces gnawed at every military confederation, from chauvinism to vanity, Eisenhower insisted that an allied commander must “solve problems through reasoning rather than by merely issuing commands.” A collaborative forbearance was key to Allied unity, and Allied unity would win the war. This was his catechism, his “iron logic,” and it had become the most profound article of faith in his life.

Except in the crow’s-feet crinkling his eyes and the deepening furrows on his forehead, few could see the strain from years of decisions that by now had consigned tens of thousands to their deaths. Only in a handwritten reply to a waspish letter from Mamie did he let the mask slip a bit as he began his fifty-fifth year. “We’ve now been apart for 2½ years and at a time under conditions that make separations painful and hard to bear,” he wrote. “The load of responsibility I carry would be intolerable unless I could have the belief that there is someone who wants me to come home—for good. Don’t forget that I take a beating, every day.”

The miles slid past, and with them the day. At dusk the Cadillac crossed the Belgian border and soon rolled into Luxembourg City. Here Bradley had just shifted the 12th Army Group command post from damp tents in Verdun to steam-heated stone buildings in the grand duchy. Only twelve miles from the German border—hardly enough distance to safely position a regimental headquarters, much less that of an army group—the capital was still reeling from four years of occupation. Overrun in less than a day in 1940, Luxembourg had been integrated into the Third Reich, and relentlessly germanized: the occupiers renamed the country Gau Moselland, changed the street names, banned the local French dialect, and conscripted ten thousand men into the Wehrmacht. Now Adolf Hitler Strasse had once again become the Avenue de la Liberté, and banners above the boulevard proclaimed, “We wish to remain what we are.”

Bradley’s office on the Place de Metz occupied a brownstone belonging to the state railway, but the limousine continued across the Pétrusse River, where tanneries, breweries, and shoemaker shops lined the bottoms near the ruined buttresses of Count Siegfried’s thousand-year-old castle. On the Avenue de la Gare, the two generals climbed out at the Hôtel Alfa, a seven-story building with a mansard roof and balconies overlooking the train station.

Here in the dining room, to Eisenhower’s surprise and evident delight, a party had been organized, with martinis, champagne, and an enormous four-star cake baked by a pastry chef in Paris. An orchestra played into the night, dreamy songs from another time they hardly remembered, and for a few sweet hours the war went away, even with the enemy but a dozen miles to the east and still scheming to reclaim Gau Moselland. Happy birthday, they sang, happy birthday, dear Ike, raising their glasses to a man they trusted and admired, the very man who would lead them to victory and then would lead them home.

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