The Tortoise Has Thrust His Head Out Very Far

AT THIS JUNCTURE we shall jump ahead to the second major crisis conference of the campaign – that of 19 December – so closely connected as it was with the first held between Bradley and Eisenhower in Versailles.

On 18 December, Bradley had summoned Patton to his own headquarters – although the front was only twenty-five miles away north-east, Bradley felt it important to stay put, demonstrating confidence not only to his own troops, but to the people of Luxembourg. Patton was shown the extent of the German penetrations, which were far greater than he had realised. He had been forewarned by his G-2 Colonel Oscar Koch, that the forthcoming Saar offensive would almost certainly be postponed and Third Army required to counter-attack the panzers in the Ardennes. When Bradley asked what Third Army could do, Patton was thus able to reply if necessary he could have two divisions (4th Armoured and 80th Infantry) on the move the next day, and a third (the 26th), ‘although it had 4,000 green replacements from Headquarters units’ within twenty-four hours.1

Later, at 11.00 p.m. on the evening of the 18th, Eisenhower instructed all his key subordinates to meet at Verdun on 19 December to coordinate their next operational moves. Bradley was already aware of the forthcoming assembly at Verdun when he ordered Patton to join him in Luxembourg. He may have realised by then that First Army was in difficulty and possibly primed Patton to put on a ‘star’ performance.

The following morning, Eisenhower and Colonel James F. Gaunt (his British Military Assistant), his deputy Tedder; Strong and Bull, his chiefs of G-2 and G-3; Bradley; Devers; and Patton, and ‘a large number of staff officers’ all travelling separately, converged on a ‘cold, dreary barracks’ in Verdun, the old Roman fortress town.2 Bedell Smith, with flu, stayed behind at Versailles to hold the fort, and Hodges, whose First Army was fighting for its life, had just moved to Chaudfontaine – ironically, his old headquarters in Spa was the very same building from which Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had directed the Imperial German armies more twenty-five years earlier. Hodges was also incapacitated with flu, his chief of staff, Bill Kean, running the show in his stead, but their absence mattered less because the meeting was called to find overall ways of countering the threat. Containing it was First Army’s task.3

Late on 16 December, First Army had alerted J. Lawton Collins of VII Corps to release his US 1st Infantry Division from the vicinity of Aachen, and two combat commands of the 3rd and 9th Armored Divisions, to assist in the Ardennes, but Hodges’ initial response was lacklustre, with none of Patton’s fire and aggression. The slow response was partly because the German opening artillery bombardment had knocked out most telephone lines to forward units (as it was designed to do), and reports from some sectors were initially tardy. It was also because Hodges misunderstood the situation; he simply did not believe the German attacks represented a major threat.

Throughout 16 December, First Army had persisted in continuing the Roer dams attack, although the formation responsible, ‘Gee’ Gerow’s V Corps, was itself under attack elsewhere from the Sixth Panzer Army. Hodges’ initial assessment, like Bradley’s, was that Herbstnebel was a local spoiling attack designed to disrupt the attack on the dams – which he formally cancelled only at 07.00 am on the 17th, far later than was wise. In the absence of positive direction from his army commander, it was the V Corps commander, Gerow, who actually ordered US 2nd Division to cease their attack, and sent Colonel Lovless’s 23rd Infantry Regiment (containing Captain Charles MacDonald) to assist the beleaguered 99th Division in the woods forward of Krinkelt on the Elsenborn Ridge. Similarly it was Gerow who directed his V Corps artillery assets towards Elsenborn, which ultimately held off the Germans.

Though his First Army headquarters War Diary has recently been published, Courtney Hicks Hodges remains the most enigmatic of the senior US commanders, and open to much retrospective criticism.4 We have seen how his First Army headquarters was dysfunctional, with strong personalities, including ‘Monk’ Dickson, whom he failed to keep in check. To what extent the fifty-seven-year-old Georgian commanding general was physically under the weather on 16–18 December, or whether there was an additional element of psychological shock – ‘this can’t be happening’ – which generated denial and inability to decide on rational courses of action, remains to be seen. He certainly retained an inferiority complex from years before, as a result of having to leave West Point after a year because of poor grades, which led to his joining the army as an enlisted man. Post-war historians were generally kind to Hodges for in the following months his First Army recovered their stride extremely well as they lanced into Germany. After the war, General Hasbrouck, of the 7th Armored Division, thought that ‘Hodges was a poor excuse for an Army Commander. He was too old and too frail’ – though it is worth remembering in this context that the fire-breathing Patton was two years older than Hodges. 5

Nevertheless, some within his HQ had noted that over 16–18 December Hodges was ‘sitting with his arms folded on his desk, his head in his arms’. This is not to say that he became a Paulus figure in Stalingrad, indifferent to the suffering of his men – more than any officer in the First Army Hodges understood the agony of front-line combat, having served as a battalion commander and winning a Distinguished Service Cross in the Meuse–Argonne in the First World War. Still, it was the domineering Major-General ‘Bill’ Kean, regarded as ‘resolute and steady’, who ‘badgered the staff in Hodges’ name’, who kept First Army’s headquarters functioning under the most trying of circumstances for the first couple of days.6

The Hodges leadership dilemma was compounded by the fact that on 18 December First Army headquarters removed itself in haste from the Hôtel Britannique in Spa to the Hôtel des Bains in Chaudfontaine, near Liège. The use of hotels, we might observe, was not pandering to luxury, but a reflection of the number of rooms they would have available to house all the staff sections of a big headquarters, and their staff. The day before, Colonel Dickson, returning from Paris via Sibert’s G-2 Intelligence cell in Luxembourg, had driven across the Ardennes, witnessing the upheavals of troops, checkpoints at every junction, nervous military policemen, jittery refugees, wild rumours, defensive measures being made, and gasoline dumps being moved. On his arrival at First Army’s Forward HQ in Spa, he recommended to Hodges that a move rearwards might be wise. During the morning of 18 December, when in conference with J. Lawton Collins of VII Corps, a report came through that ‘German tanks were a couple of miles down the road’. Though false, Hodges’s HQ reacted with alacrity and had started to vanish within the hour.

Major Tom Bigland, Monty’s chief liaison officer at Bradley’s Luxembourg headquarters, remembered ‘early on the nineteenth we set off for First Army HQ. We found no Army MPs in Spa and walked into the HQ to find literally not one single person there except a German woman. Breakfast was laid and the Christmas tree decorated in the dining room, telephones were in all the offices, papers were all over the place, but there was no one left to tell visitors where they had gone to. Germans [friendly civilians] in the town said they had gone suddenly at 03.00 a.m.’7However conducted, there had been an air of panic about the removal, which failed to impress visitors to the now-empty building, including 7th Armored Division officers on their way to St Vith, and Montgomery’s liaison officers. Apparently, sensitive papers, maps showing dispositions, the working telephone exchange and even unopened Christmas presents had been abandoned. Rumours soon circulated around Twenty-First Army Group that a state of paralysis existed in the American First Army’s headquarters, which soon reached the ears of Jock Whiteley, the Deputy G-3 at SHAEF.8

The 19 December meeting at Verdun thus came hard on the heels of these First Army dramas, and reminded those present how easy it was to be overwhelmed by panic. The commanders striding in to Ike’s crisis meeting were just the latest in a long list of generals whose footsteps had echoed off Verdun’s walls. The modern battlements had been built by the finest military engineer of his time, Vauban, whose castle remains to this day the badge of the US Corps of Engineers. More ominously, within earshot and in the lifetimes of all those present, the bloody battle for Verdun had been fought, with its staggeringly awful death toll – some 300,000 in all – just twenty-eight years earlier. De Guingand represented Montgomery; those who wanted to saw the British field marshal’s absence as spite; others felt it a diplomatic attempt to avoid being sucked into what was primarily an American affair. Before departing from Nancy, Patton had alerted his staff and two of his corps commanders that Third Army would be called on to come to the relief of First Army; where and when would be decided at Verdun.

By this time, Berlin’s boasting about the Ardennes offensive had permeated around the world. On Monday, 18 December, General Sir Alan Brooke, Britain’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), recorded in his private diary, ‘Germans are delivering strong counter offensive against Americans, who have no immediate reserves to stem the attack with. They ought ultimately to hold it all right, and to have an opportunity of delivering serious counter blow which might well finish off Germans.’ Surprisingly, Brooke then went on to demonstrate that he shared the somewhat unbalanced views of Montgomery about the US Army’s professional skills. ‘But I am not sure whether they have the skill required. I doubt it. It is a worrying situation, if I felt that the American divisional, corps, army commanders and staff were more efficient than they are, there is no doubt that this might turn out to be a heaven sent opportunity. However, if mishandled it may well put the defeat of Germany back for another six months.’9

Brooke, like the rest of the Allied world, was still nursing the illusion that this was Rundstedt’s attack, and not Hitler’s, for he continued, ‘Perhaps as a “good German” he [Rundstedt] considers that there may be a definite advantage in bringing this war to an early conclusion, and consequently accepts all risks, great as they are, willingly?’10 This was a worrying admission, that Britain’s senior serviceman and Churchill’s top military adviser had not the faintest idea of the nature of Hitler’s dictatorship, that none of Germany’s generals had ever possessed the freedom to act, as Brooke assumed Rundstedt was doing in December 1944.

This was a huge news story that echoed around the world; on 19 December, the banner headlines of the Brisbane Courier-Mail announced ‘Hun Counter Makes Gains. Tanks and Infantry Behind American Lines. Paratroops Too’.11 The same day, United Press war correspondent Jack Frankish, with the US First army, whose wires were picked up by many newspapers around the world, observed with much foresight, ‘one immediate tactical aim of the Nazis was believed to be the capture of large American supply dumps to replenish their own thin reserves, particularly gasoline’.12 ‘Germans Sweep West Through Luxembourg’, reported the New York Times; ‘US Reveals Big Nazi Gains’, said the Detroit Free Press. That all these organs of news could report a severe setback in the midst of the war underlined that the Allied coalition (which then referred to itself as ‘The United Nations’ on propaganda posters) was a collection of democracies battling against a repressive dictatorship. The well-connected British Member of Parliament Harold Nicolson confided in his diary on the same day, ‘Rundstedt has staged a startling offensive in the Malmedy sector. It seems it started three days ago and that he has penetrated our lines by as much as twenty miles. The optimists say that this is the last suicide fling; the pessimists say that there is nothing to stop him getting to Paris or at least to Liège. But what most people seem to think is that it has the comparatively limited objective of forcing us to leave the sacred soil of the Fatherland. It may be that they will succeed, and then we shall have a peace-offer.’13

On the same day, The Times reported soberly from London, ‘Nazi Push Seen as Greatest Gamble of War’. Its editorial intoned,

The German army appeared today to have taken its greatest gamble of the war, staking everything on a single desperate offensive to halt the allied march on Berlin now. Decisive failure in this big push, observers believed, might lead to a German military collapse and the final defeat of the Wehrmacht west of the Rhine. The full scope and purpose of the enemy’s winter offensive is still obscured by military censorship on both sides of the front, but field dispatches hinted strongly that the battle now swirling along the Belgian border may prove to be the last great action of the western war … All accounts indicated the Nazis have finally committed the cream of their armored reserves to this offensive, and the German home radio service boasted that the long-silent Adolf Hitler personally planned and ordered the attack.14

Ironically this last sentence in an open-source newspaper report was more accurate than Brooke’s assessment that this was Rundstedt’s attack. By 19 December, Brooke’s views about the US Army were still harsh, but he seemed to trust Ike’s judgement, writing, ‘Very little more news of the war in France, Eisenhower seems quite confident and so do his staff, that they can deal with this situation. I only hope that this confidence is not based on ignorance!’15 It seems there was an enormous gulf between his grudging acknowledgement of the US Army and its undoubted professionalism in the field. Given that Montgomery was Brooke’s protégé, it is obvious whence Monty’s own highly developed prejudices sprang.

Churchill, though, had every confidence, writing to Roosevelt, ‘His Majesty’s Government have complete confidence in General Eisenhower and feel acutely any attacks made on him’, and went on to outline measures ‘to bring another 250,000 [personnel] into or nearer the front line’. Churchill released the contents of the letter to the media and phoned Eisenhower beforehand to alert him to this public display of prime ministerial support. Ike’s aide, Butcher, wrote that ‘General Ike appreciated the gravity of the difficult decision the Prime Minister had made, and spoke of his gratitude for this additional evidence of the unshakeable resolution of the Prime Minister’. Churchill’s remarks about confidence in Ike were designed to offset any derogatory comments Monty was in the habit of making.16

Similarly, Harold Nicolson wrote to friends from his medieval castle at Sissinghurst, in Kent, on 19 December, ‘People are pretty glum about the Rundstedt offensive. “Is it serious?” I whispered to Anthony Eden [the British Foreign Secretary, during a House of Commons debate]. “Yes,” he answered, “it’s bad, very bad indeed” … It has created a gloom such as I have not seen for months.’ Whereupon, in that baffling manner that gentle aristocrats possess, Nicolson concluded, ‘And as we are such a sporting folk, it has also aroused some admiration for von Rundstedt’s skill and enterprise.’17 By contrast, Nicolson’s Prime Minister, Churchill, was ever inclined to look for the silver lining, and wrote to his friend, Field Marshal Smuts, ‘As usual I am optimistic: the tortoise has thrust his head out very far.’18

At this time, the British Embassy in Washington, DC, sent London the American view of Herbstnebel, as seen through British eyes. ‘The reverses on the Western Front have had a profoundly sobering effect on American public opinion … Coming when it did, Rundstedt’s breakthrough … had a steadying effect in forcing the average American to hesitate, if only for a moment, about the invincible might of his country, to reflect upon the still formidable dangers threatening him from east and west, and consequently upon the necessity for firmer understanding with, at any rate, his major Allies.’19

Thus, when Ike and his senior commanders assembled for their 19 December meeting, the spotlight of the free world’s politicians and media was already focused on the early German successes, adding to the pressure on them. Of course the outside world had no knowledge of the gathering in the cold and dismal French barracks at Verdun, but when Eisenhower arrived at 11.00 a.m., he was determined to lighten the mood. ‘The present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity for us and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table,’ he beamed, mirroring the self-assurance of his earlier letter to Marshall. Eisenhower had overseen similar tense meetings, most notably in southern England before Overlord, at Southwick House outside Portsmouth, when he was forced to postpone D-Day by twenty-four hours. This meeting would be as crucial, he knew, although history would judge that he had already initiated the corrective steps necessary on 16 December. Yet, there was no denying Eisenhower was tense; his 200-mile journey from Paris in appalling weather, surrounded by a cohort of protective armoured vehicles, cannot have helped.

Patton immediately responded to Ike’s opener: ‘Hell, let’s have the guts to let the sons of bitches go all the way to Paris. Then we’ll really cut ’em up and chew ’em up.’ The room apparently erupted in laughter, some of it forced, but not all, and the ice had been broken. Eisenhower replied, ‘George, that’s fine. But the enemy must never be allowed to cross the Meuse.’ Those present agreed that all Allied offensive activity elsewhere must cease while the Ardennes threat was addressed. Eisenhower’s strategy had already been worked out, as we have seen: use the Meuse as a stop line to contain the German assault, then throttle it. Devers’ Sixth Army Group would move north to take over much of Third Army’s sector, allowing Patton to counter-attack.

In order to do so, part of Third Army would have to reorientate its axis from facing east, to north. Such a manoeuvre would require his forces to be relieved in place, disengage, then pivot 90 degrees in mid-winter, with all their vehicles, equipment and logistics, and move over icy roads to concentrate at Arlon in less than seventy-two hours. Normally such an undertaking would require weeks of staff work, but Patton had in fact devised three alternative plans beforehand, each allocated a code word, and designed to meet any need he could foresee of Eisenhower’s. This much Patton had anticipated; he didn’t know exactly what Ike would request, but had put himself in a position to be able to agree immediately, simply by issuing the appropriate code word to his headquarters by phone.

Patton, with false modesty, wrote later, ‘When it is considered that I left for Verdun at 09.15 a.m., and that between 08.00 a.m. and that hour we had had a staff meeting, planned three possible lines of attack, and made a simple code in which I could telephone which we were to use, it is evident that war is not so difficult as people think.’20 It still required an outrageously confident commander with complete assurance of the professional skill of his subordinates even to contemplate the execution of such a breathtaking manoeuvre; there was little doubt that George Patton was the only one in the Allied camp capable of rising to the challenge. There is probably no military commander in the world today who would embrace such a course of action at such short notice.

‘I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial,’ wrote Churchill of the moment he took over as Prime Minister on 10 May 1940. ‘I thought I knew a good deal about it all, I was sure I should not fail.’21 In the same way that history has judged Ike’s supreme military achievement as coming on the night of 16 December, Patton’s came at this conference. ‘This was the sublime moment of his career,’ according to Martin Blumenson, Patton’s biographer and the distinguished author of seventeen works on the Second World War in North Africa and Europe. Patton, with his deep sense of military history and destiny, would certainly have felt that all his years of study and war-making were in preparation for this moment, a ‘single, defining instant in which the fate of the war rested on the right decisions being made and carried out by the men in that dingy room,’ thought Carlo D’Este, another biographer.

Constantly referring to the various maps propped on easels around the room, Eisenhower then addressed Patton: ‘George, I want you to make a strong counterattack with at least six divisions. When can you start?’ Patton, backed by the superb staff at his headquarters and the foresight of Koch, was ready to play his aces. ‘As soon as you’re through with me,’ the Third Army commander replied. ‘When can you attack?’ Eisenhower persisted. ‘The morning of 21 December, with three divisions.’ In other words, in forty-eight hours: Patton had thrown down the gauntlet. ‘It created a ripple of excitement. Some people thought I was boasting and others seemed to be pleased,’ he observed.22 A few were shaking heads and muttering at Patton’s misplaced humour. The British contingent laughed, misunderstanding his seriousness.

Patton’s aide, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles R. Codman, witnessed ‘a stir, a shuffling of feet, as those present straightened up in their chairs’. ‘Don’t be fatuous, George,’ Ike responded with obvious irritation. ‘If you try to go that early, you won’t have all three divisions ready and you’ll go piecemeal. You will start on the twenty-second, and I want your initial blow to be a strong one! I’d even settle for the twenty-third if it takes that long to get three full divisions.’ Waving his trademark cigar, Patton took the floor, illustrating his intentions on Eisenhower’s maps. Two of his three corps would be employed for the counter-attack, with Patch’s Seventh Army taking over most of Third Army’s sector in the Saar – ironically the very region from which Hans Nikolaus Eisenhauer had emigrated to America, exactly 200 years before. Patton pointed to the German incursion and looked at the Twelfth Army Group commander, ‘Brad, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder … and this time I’ve got hold of the handle,’ he boasted, all the while turning his fist in a grinding motion.

More ripples of appreciative laughter. Eisenhower and Bradley cannot have anticipated this turn of events, but Patton now held centre-stage and, what was more, had definitely eased the tension. Ike was acting more as a chairman, encouraging his Third Army commander – he had, after all, long been his protector. What is interesting about this meeting, which involved far more than these famous exchanges, was that Bradley, whose army group had been attacked, said very little, mostly observing. It would, perhaps, have been impossible for anyone to upstage Patton at this moment, but there may also have been a sense of guilt. Bradley’s gamble of keeping the Ardennes weak, his defence to Eisenhower of that policy on 7 December after the Maastricht meeting with Montgomery; his further defence of his G-2 on 14 December, and his disregard of the evidence of a German build-up had critically endangered the Allied advance. He, more than anyone else, had looked in the mirror for Hitler’s intentions, and seen only a reflection of his own. His own reputation was now on the line, the Twelfth Army Group commander knew.

It was in this light that Bradley acknowledged Third Army’s performance denoted ‘a greatly matured Patton … the Third Army staff had pulled off a brilliant effort’. In acknowledging the staff work behind Patton’s performance, Bradley was perhaps hinting he had prepared the way with his 18 December briefing to the Third Army’s commander. More telling was the interchange between Eisenhower and Patton as the meeting broke up. ‘Funny thing, George,’ the Supreme Commander observed, ‘every time I get a new star I get attacked.’ Ike was referring to the Afrika Korps attack on the Kasserine Pass, which had coincided with Eisenhower’s last promotion. ‘And every time you get attacked, Ike, I pull you out,’ the quick-witted Third Army commander responded, at the top of his game, referring to his own successful defence in Tunisia just after Kasserine.

‘Larger than life’ is a sobriquet applied to several military figures, but, in the case of General George Smith Patton, Jr, the title was just. He came to the fore remarkably quickly in the Second World War, having become a household name only from 1943, much later than Montgomery or Rommel, and yet was better-known than either Eisenhower or Bradley. That the Patton legend has lingered is due in part to his early and unlikely death – not as he would have wished, clipped by a shell in the turret of his tank, but in a road traffic accident, just months after the war’s end in 1945. Few great captains (neither Napoleon or Wellington, for example) in history have justified a film of their life, but Francis Ford Coppola’s 1970 screenplay for Patton only added to the mystique; ironically the film’s technical adviser was Patton’s boss, and often his bitterest critic, Bradley.


George S. Patton (1885–1945) as he saw himself. Patton had joined the US cavalry from West Point in 1909 in the days when horses still dominated the battlefield. At heart a romantic and from childhood obsessed with war, he felt his entire career was spent in preparation for a fleeting opportunity to become one of the great captains of history. His military life witnessed the last of the boots-andsaddles era and the ushering in of the atomic age. Despite his affinity for the past, Patton embraced modern technology with outstanding rapidity and proficiency, becoming one of the supreme exponents of armoured warfare. (NARA)

As Carlo D’Este observed, ‘Patton represented the individuality and passion for life of a man who was so thoroughly a product of America’. Only the United States could have produced a commander with his flamboyance, love of publicity, impeccable turnout, ostentatious accessories – the burnished helmet, jodhpurs, polished riding boots, whip and pearl-handled revolvers – as well as his flagrant insubordination, which is what Bradley feared on 16 December. Patton suffered from dyslexia, but wrote as he spoke, as he commanded – full of fire and exuding confidence (‘he was grotesquely confident’, according to one historian), which he inherited from a long line of soldiers. Schooling at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) and West Point (class of 1909) provided the discipline, which he likewise, and ruthlessly, expected from all his subordinates, and his entry into the cavalry added the flair. He was a superb horseman and competed in the Modern Pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics – a sporting feat he could share with the German Fifth Army’s commander, Manteuffel. Luck is also a vital ingredient of successful commanders, one that is often overlooked, and Patton was born at the right time to serve in both world wars.

From childhood his absorbing interest was military history, which equipped him with an extra ace for high command. He saw himself as an authentic military genius whose entire life was spent in preparation for a fleeting opportunity to become one of the great captains of history. Promoted to captain, Patton joined Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force (AEF), seeing action in the Meuse–Argonne offensive of September–November 1918, and returning in 1919 as Colonel Patton with a Distinguished Service Cross. Reverting to his peacetime rank of captain, he would not regain his colonelcy until 1938. By the time America joined the war in 1941, Patton had more experience of handling armour than any other US soldier, taking the 2nd Armored Division to North Africa. He was happiest at the operational level; one criticism that can certainly be made of him was that he had little understanding of politics or strategy.

Few would disagree that he was unquestionably the outstanding exponent of armoured warfare produced by the Allies; Montgomery, for example, knew surprisingly little about the interior of a tank. Although Tunisia gave Patton little chance to demonstrate his flair, he was promoted to command II Corps on Bradley’s recommendation, then lieutenant-general to lead the US Seventh Army in Sicily. There, the speed of his advance surprised his own colleagues (especially the British) as well as the Germans. His capture of Palermo justified Eisenhower’s faith in him, but his arrival in Messina prior to Montgomery did nothing to improve relations between these two prima donnas. At this juncture, he slapped the face of two shell-shocked soldiers resting in field hospitals, accusing them of cowardice. An army surgeon complained and the newspapers got hold of the story. As a result, Marshall nearly sent him home, as many would have desired, but Eisenhower intervened and Patton moved from Seventh to Third Army, in England.

That his former subordinate Bradley, and not Patton, commanded the US First Army on D-Day was ‘punishment’ for the slapping incident. Yet, Dwight David Eisenhower (whom Patton referred to in private as ‘Divine Destiny’, after his initials) protected him because of his spectacular battlefield victories. Patton’s vital contribution to Operation Overlord’s success was to head up FUSAG, the fictional First US Army Group, supposedly planning an invasion from Dover. Though Patton found the role acutely frustrating, the Germans paid him the compliment of refusing to believe the Allies would land without Patton, and he cooled his heels in England until 1 August 1944, when his Third Army was activated.

Again, Patton’s characteristic disregard for orders, demonstrated in Sicily, impounding of supplies (particularly fuel) destined for neighbouring friendly formations, and lack of protection for his flanks paid off. He made essentially the same reckless advances that Rommel had conducted four years earlier, in the opposite direction, with the same results, and there are many similarities between the two. A less confident commander might have paused, and the war could have lasted longer. Patton was willing to gamble his reputation on reckless tactical moves in a way many admired but few dared imitate, ‘a soldier’s soldier’ according to one historian, ‘fiery, romantic, unique’. The nineteenth of December 1944 surely belonged to George S. Patton, Jr

It was at this juncture that the British general Jock Whiteley returned to Paris on the night of 19 December, full of concern about First Army. The main German effort seemed to him to be aimed at Namur, with rumours of paratroops around Malmedy and Spa. Hodges’ First Army by all accounts seemed to be struggling, and Bradley’s HQ was much too far south, in Luxembourg. Whiteley became convinced privately that someone other than Hodges needed to be given temporary control of the northern sector of the German-held salient while First Army sorted themselves out. That could only mean Montgomery. The attraction for Whiteley was probably less Montgomery per se (he was never a fan), than his seasoned staff and their seemingly crisis-proof HQ. He also sensed urgency, for at this stage the panzers were still rampant all over the Ardennes.23Whiteley called de Guingand to feel his way. ‘If Ike asked Monty to take over First Army, how soon could you do it?’ ‘Tomorrow morning’ came the reassuring response. Whiteley made it clear that this was purely a speculative enquiry and nothing had yet been decided, although he didn’t go so far as to admit this was a private idea of his own that had no official backing whatsoever.

Whiteley found an ally in his fellow Briton, Kenneth Strong, whose own view was that the Allies were failing to match up to the situation, and that Bradley underestimated the crisis at Hodges’ headquarters, now reunited with its rear echelon at Chaudfontaine. At about midnight, the SHAEF chief of staff in Paris, Bedell Smith, was woken by the two British major-generals who explained their concerns to him. Ailing with flu, in a cot placed next to his office, and his slumber interrupted, Bedell Smith, sensing a British plot, let rip at the pair, suggesting their behaviour was unacceptable. He was of the opinion that whenever there was any real trouble, the British had no faith in the Americans to handle it. Ironically, neither Strong nor Whiteley were pro-Montgomery, being two of SHAEF’s most loyal and senior staff officers, but Bedell Smith in his temper fired them on the spot, labelling them ‘sons of bitches’ and ‘limey bastards’. Even since Normandy, there had been sniping between the two nations within SHAEF as to the operational management of the war, despite Eisenhower’s efforts, as the arch-conciliator, to outlaw such behaviour. Coalition warfare to him was a religion.

Bedell Smith couldn’t get back to sleep. The more he brooded, the more he saw sense in what they had said, even if they were ‘limey bastards’. Realising the unpopularity of such a move, and how it would play out back in the United States, Bedell Smith could also see that militarily it made sense, though it was not a solution he would have immediately worked out himself. Furthermore, he realised Whiteley and Strong had been right to come to him, because such a suggestion – appointing Montgomery – could only come from an American. Bedell Smith then consulted Bradley, knowing it would be a difficult matter to broach. In suggesting that his arch-rival Montgomery, and a Brit to boot, should control half of what had been his battlespace could be interpreted as a harsh judgement on his own generalship. Yet, as Bedell Smith had come to realise, in the gravity of the situation it was a sensible solution.

At this stage, Eisenhower was not in the loop. The Bedell Smith–Bradley conversation was certainly difficult and both sides had different recollections of it, though in Bradley’s later memoir, A General’s Life, he regretted not standing up to Bedell Smith, observing, ‘I made one of my biggest mistakes of the war’ in agreeing to the proposal. He went on, ‘instead of standing up to Smith, telling him that SHAEF was losing its head, that I had things under control, and reassuring him that Hodges was performing magnificently under the circumstances’, Bradley caved in and accepted that it might become necessary for Monty to temporarily command the northern portion of the battlefield. Bradley could have done two things to ameliorate the situation: he could have gone to visit Hodges and assess his subordinate himself; and he should in any case have moved his HQ away from Luxembourg to a site where he could have commanded the entire Bulge. Instead, he elected to do neither, and history has not judged Bradley kindly in this regard.

The following morning Bedell Smith rehabilitated Whiteley and Strong straightaway, telling them that, after his morning conference of 20 December, he would present their proposal to Ike, but as his own, and framed as an American idea. What had finally brought Bedell Smith around was his discovery that Bradley’s HQ in Luxembourg had been out of communication with Hodges’ headquarters for more than forty-eight hours; admittedly this was during the latter’s move, but to lose contact with a major headquarters for even an hour under any circumstances was, and remains, a major sin. It was an indicator that neither Bradley nor Hodges had the situation under control. In this light, it was easy for Eisenhower to accept Bedell Smith’s recommendation to divide the Ardennes front into two as a temporary expedient. Montgomery would be given operational command of all Allied forces (the US First and Ninth Armies) in the northern half of the Bulge. Bradley retained control of its southern flank – essentially Patton’s Third Army).

Ike then phoned his new orders through to Bradley in person. They were not well received. This was where their friendship, so strong on the evening of 16 December, began to unravel. Bradley protested loudly, attempting to play the national red card: ‘By God, Ike, I cannot be responsible to the American people if you do this. I resign.’ But Ike, too, was an American as well as Bradley’s superior, noting that as Supreme Commander it was he who was responsible: ‘Your resignation therefore means absolutely nothing.’ This carried on until Eisenhower ended the debate with ‘Well, Brad, those are my orders’. Ever after, Bradley blamed Monty for this ‘plot’ against him, whereas in reality, as we have seen, there was none, and he would never acknowledge that SHAEF had some justice behind their action. In this sense, the Twelfth Army Group commander had been his own worst enemy.

By 20 December, Brooke, the CIGS in London, understood the situation in the Ardennes was more alarming than he had at first realised; this came via an exuberant communication from Twenty-First Army Group headquarters in the following terms: ‘telegram from Monty which showed clearly that the situation in France was serious. American front penetrated, Germans advancing on Namur with little in front of them, north flank of First American Army in state of flux and disorganisation, etc. Also suggesting he should be given command of all forces north of the penetration [this was after the Whiteley–Strong intervention] … Got Winston to put the proposal to Ike … Ike agreed and had apparently already issued orders to that effect.’24

Under Monty were two American armies, Hodges’ First and Simpson’s Ninth. When Monty first visited First Army’s HQ, now in the safety of Chaudfontaine, Hodges made such a poor impression on the field marshal that Monty lobbied Eisenhower for him to be relieved of command. It was not his call to make, of course, but Hodges knew he would have to improve his game radically, for – coalition stresses or not – there were no second chances in war. Bradley seems to have been overprotective of First Army’s commander, perhaps for no other reason than Hodges was his successor when he rose to lead the Army Group. By contrast, we have already met the wholly professional attitude of General William H. Simpson and his Ninth Army during the battle. Fully aware of the tensions of coalition unity at such a moment of crisis in the Allied command chain, Simpson at Maastricht did much to ensure things ran smoothly with Montgomery.

During this period, Simpson reported to Ike, ‘I and my Army are operating smoothly and cheerfully under the command of the Field Marshal. The most cordial relations and a very high spirit of cooperation have been established between him and myself personally and between our respective Staffs. You can depend on me to respond cheerfully, promptly and as efficiently as I possibly can to every instruction he gives … The Field Marshal paid me a visit and at his request I took him to the headquarters of my XIX Corps where I had all of my corps and division commanders assembled to meet him. After all had been introduced to him, he made us a splendid talk on the present situation.’25 The Allies had resolved their high-level differences and could now focus on limiting and destroying the Bulge. In their eyes, this was a battle they would inevitably win: the only unknown was how long it would take.

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