The Machinery of Command

EXPLORING THE POSSIBILITIES of the Führer’s 31 July 1944 vision was the responsibility of staff attached to the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or Armed Forces High Command). Senior members of OKW, such as its head, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, were based with Hitler, wherever his headquarters was located. Until 20 November, when the Red Army were fifty miles away, the Führer’s HQ was at the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, where Stauffenberg had narrowly failed to alter history. Also located within the network of over thirty reinforced bunkers sited in a swamp-ridden forest was a massive communications centre that linked to every military headquarters, and Generaloberst Alfred Jodl. He acted as Keitel’s deputy as head of the Wehrmachtführungsstab, the Operations Staff of OKW, which translated Hitler’s ideas into operations plans and orders.

Keitel was one of Hitler’s inner circle, but a sycophant distrusted by the army – and was known behind his back as ‘Lakeitel’. This was a pun on his surname, for ‘Lakai’ translates as ‘lackey’, his perceived function. Between them, Keitel and Jodl (who, being respected more, had no nickname) briefed Hitler daily on the military situation and translated his whims into directives for transmission down the chain of command. After its departure from East Prussia in November, the Führerhauptquartier decamped to Berlin, then to the Adlerhorst at Ziegenberg, where Hitler arrived hours before the 11 December 1944 conference, travelling by his personal train and car.

Only a small proportion of OKW remained with Hitler; the main organisation, staffed by a huge collection of officers running everything from propaganda and personnel to signals and intelligence, were housed at ‘Maybach II’, codename for a series of purpose-built bunkers, near Zossen, fifteen miles south of Berlin.1 For reasons of secrecy, early skeleton plans for the campaign Jodl was scoping for Hitler – modelled on the strategy used over four years earlier – were worked out within the Wolfsschanze itself, but later, as the project became more concrete and alternatives explored, the staff at Zossen became involved and forwarded their work to Jodl.

The story of the 1940 invasion of France, which Hitler instructed Jodl to study, was remarkable in two respects. First, Hitler backed an unusual idea, previously rejected by the General Staff. Secondly, the result achieved victory beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The original German strategy, named innocuously Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), envisaged a thrust into northern Belgium and Holland, similar to the Schlieffen Plan of 1914. As a result, the Germans correctly anticipated the cream of the Allied forces would be sent into northern Belgium – France’s best armoured divisions and the whole of the British Expeditionary Force.

While ‘Case Yellow’ originated from the General Staff, General Erich von Manstein proposed an alternative. A northern army group should still thrust into Belgium, distracting Allied attention, while in great secrecy a southern force would assemble, then attack through the poorly defended Ardennes, and eventually swing north to surround and destroy their opponents. The Germans were taught to think in terms of vast encircling operations, emulating Hannibal’s 216 bc triumph over Rome at Cannae, considered the most perfect of manoeuvres.

Generalleutnant Heinz Guderian, creator of Germany’s Panzerwaffe (tank arm), contributed to Manstein’s plan by suggesting his tanks could slice through the dense Ardennes forests, which he alone considered passable by armour, cross the River Meuse at Sedan and Dinant and execute a swift, deep penetration to the English Channel. He understood the terrain, having attended the German Staff College in 1918, when it was based at Sedan. German pre-1940 doctrine dictated that tanks could not advance without infantry support, but Guderian and Manstein recommended their panzers push on to the coast without waiting for lumbering, horse-drawn infantry units. British military historian Basil Liddell Hart later called the advance into Belgium ‘the matador’s cloak’, simultaneously enticing the Allies into Belgium and distracting them from the real attack further south. The Germans called Manstein’s manoeuvre Sichelschnitt (the ‘cut of the sickle’).

Hitler had harboured private doubts about the General Staff’s scheme of a main thrust into Belgium, which he considered might bring about another stalemate, as in 1914, and had already been drawn to the Ardennes area as a means of initiating a secondary assault. When in February 1940 Manstein’s idea had been brought to his attention, he seized on it as though it were his own, and, overriding the advice of the entire General Staff, ordered all original plans scrapped in favour of Manstein’s. It was a bold strategy, and foreshadowed the Führer’s interference in military plans that had become routine by 1944.

The strategy of May 1940 was underpinned by the Luftwaffe overhead supporting armour, artillery, engineers and mechanised infantry, all of whom travelled at high speed and fought a thoroughly integrated combined-arms battle. It was only after the defeat of France that the Wehrmacht fully embraced these tactics, subsequently dubbed Blitzkrieg (‘lightning war’). In retirement Guderian observed that the word ‘blitzkrieg’ was unknown in pre-war German manuals or training, and did not enter widespread vocabulary until after use in the British and American press to describe the Wehrmacht’s successes in Poland and France.

Historians generally accept that there was no coherent doctrine or developed concept of blitzkrieg; rather, it was an evolving notion that is best defined by its characteristics, which revolved around the concept of the Schwerpunkt, a centre of gravity or point of maximum effort, where land and air forces were concentrated to achieve penetrations of the Front, exploiting speed to disrupt, disperse and destroy their opponents. Ironically, fast movement was also one of the defining ideas of blitzkrieg and in 1940 the Wehrmacht was not designed for speed: only around 10 per cent of its land forces were mechanised or armoured, the rest using horses. Four years later, the percentages were not much different. By 1944 the Russians and the Western Allies had also learned to apply the principles of blitzkrieg – a classic case of taking a rival doctrine and improving upon it. (As the Official Historian in Iraq, I witnessed a modern version of blitzkrieg being employed by the American and British forces in their invasion of March–April 2003.) To a certain extent, commanders through the centuries had arrived at a similar conclusion, to concentrate combined arms and produce a lightning strike of frightening speed, but the vital 1940s innovation was that of air support – and what would challenge Hitler’s 1944 blitzkrieg was his inability to integrate Luftwaffe support.

The incredible triumph of May 1940, achieved in six weeks, was due partly to the adoption of these high-risk concepts, which overwhelmed opponents by the sheer momentum and brutality of the attack, paralysing their command chain, but also because the Franco-Belgian forces chose not to defend nodal points in the Ardennes, their training was very poor, equipment obsolete, decision-making slow at every level and political and military resolve low. Victory had been achieved to everyone’s surprise, largely thanks to Manstein and Guderian.2

These, then, were the events of four years earlier, narrated in documents, some fire-damaged by bombing, that were retrieved and studied by one of Jodl’s trusted circle, a middle-aged former professor of history at the University of Göttingen, one of Germany’s most prestigious universities. Major Percy Schramm, Anglophile and distinguished expert on European monarchy, had been appointed the OKW’s diarist from 1 January 1943, and was based in the Führerhauptquartier.3 Schramm knew that the Kaiser’s army had attacked through the Ardennes, albeit on foot, with great success in 1914, while on 1 September 1870 Sedan had been the scene of another amazing triumph over the French. Field Marshal von Moltke, Wilhelm I and Bismarck had all been present to witness the humiliation of the French, commanded in person by Napoleon III. The Ardennes, Sedan and the River Meuse (known to the Germans and Dutch as the River Maas) were synonymous in most German minds with victories over their traditional enemy. Given the weight of history attached to the region, Schramm also understood three things: the events of 1940 had taken place in May when the weather was glorious, Luftwaffe support had been vital to the achievement of ‘Case Yellow’, and the Wehrmacht had been able to manoeuvre off-road and bypass any significant roadblocks in the Ardennes. None of these factors would be relevant in the winter of 1944.4

The OKW had been established in 1938 as an umbrella headquarters to oversee and coordinate all army, navy and air force plans, exercises and operations. It was the world’s first ‘joint’ headquarters, commonplace and invaluable today but then unique. OKW had a rival organisation, which had been its subordinate, but by 1944 came to be seen as an equal. This was the Oberkommando des Heeres (High Command of the Army, or OKH), founded in 1935, which directed all land operations. After the December 1941 defeat outside Moscow, its chief had been dismissed and Hitler appointed himself its new commander. Under him, OKH was run by successive army chiefs of staff, with responsibility solely for the Russian Front. Meanwhile Keitel and Jodl at OKW directed all land activity elsewhere, while Göring’s Luftwaffe and Karl Dönitz of the Kriegsmarine decided they would create their own command chains direct to Hitler.

Sadly, for the efficiency of the German armed forces, the tri-service nature of OKW had succumbed to inter-service bickering and personal rivalries. The air force and navy acted independently, while Himmler and his SS organisations stood apart from OKW and OKH, even though Waffen-SS divisions soldiered alongside the Wehrmacht in the east and west. By 1944, this extraordinary network of conflicting commands made for great inefficiency, duplication, poor decision-making and time-wasting, to the detriment of German military effectiveness in the field – but it removed any domestic military threat to Hitler: he encouraged any potential opponents to compete, rather than unite against him.

At Zossen, OKH in Maybach I was located next to OKW in Maybach II, but the two headquarters were separated by a physical fence which was also a mental one, serving to underline their ridiculous rivalries. From 21 July 1944 OKH was presided over by the fiery tank commander Guderian, who chose to stay at Zossen as much as possible, rather than tolerate the viper’s nest of the Wolfsschanze. OKW would direct the forthcoming Ardennes attack, but moving reinforcements away from the Eastern Front in order to build up the necessary reserves in the west required the participation and support of Guderian’s OKH.

Meanwhile, what of the real threat, the Allies? With US formations pushing into Brittany and lower Normandy, Hitler concluded the best hope was for a surprise assault to punch through the still narrow American corridor stretching south from Avranches. His first attempt was Operation Lüttich, launched on 7 August and intended to start in the little hilltop town of Mortain, advancing westwards, towards Avranches. For this, Hitler through OKW forced a reluctant Kluge to assemble the remnants of four panzer divisions (1st and 2nd SS, 2nd and 116th, all of whom would serve in the Ardennes) to move against the American flanks like a giant armoured steamroller. From the Wolfsschanze he demanded: ‘We must strike like lightning. When we reach the sea the American spearheads will be cut off. Obviously they are trying all-out for a major decision here, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent in their best general, Patton. He’s the most dangerous man they have.’ In the event, the entire effort mustered less than 200 tanks, and though all were seasoned veterans of earlier campaigns, it was an unrealistic plan, concocted thousands of miles away in East Prussia, and doomed by their opponents’ air power.5

The armour needed at Mortain had already been frittered away in the largely successful static defence of the bocage – those peculiar Norman hedgerows which dominated the campaign. The attack was contained around Mortain during the first day and although fighting continued for a week, it failed to stop the American advance elsewhere, with Patton’s Third Army capturing Le Mans, 65 miles south-east, on 8 August.6 Even the codename for the Mortain offensive was a clue into Hitler’s mind. Lüttich is the German name for the Belgian city of Liège, five miles from Aachen and the Reich’s frontier; historically it was considered German, hence its having a Teutonic name. Operation Lüttich was not merely a counter-attack but, in Hitler’s mind, retaking that which the Germans considered rightfully their own. Hitler chose the titles of other operations, such as ‘Barbarossa’ (the invasion of Russia) ‘Retribution’ (the bombing of Belgrade) or ‘Hercules’ (the projected invasion of Malta), which likewise conveyed a meaning, often through historical reference; and so, too, for the Ardennes offensive, as we shall discover.

Operation Lüttich had the added disadvantage of being compromised by signals intelligence. Allied code-breakers based at Bletchley Park, a country house in Buckinghamshire, England, had worked out the secrets of the German Enigma enciphering machine and forewarned Allied high command that the Mortain attack was on its way. Subsequently, every attempt at seizing the initiative with mobile armoured attacks failed, owing to the lack of remaining combat power and the withering effect of Allied air power over the battlefield. Although the Reich never realised their strategic secrets were compromised in any way, Allied reliance on Enigma intelligence products, warning them of forthcoming German operations, would become a huge issue with the Ardennes offensive in December.

Early August saw the strategic situation in Normandy alter dramatically. By this time the millionth Allied serviceman (and a few servicewomen, too) had just stepped ashore. On the first of the month, General Omar Nelson Bradley was promoted to lead American Twelfth Army Group, which included US First Army, his old command, now under Lieutenant-General Courtney H. Hodges, and Third Army, the creature of George S. Patton. Bradley was a West Point contemporary of Eisenhower’s and both had received accelerated promotion: his two subordinates were somewhat older than him (he was fifty-two; Hodges was fifty-seven and Patton would turn fifty-nine in November), requiring great tact and diplomacy in his direction of the army group.

In addition, from 5 September, units of Lieutenant-General William H. Simpson’s US Ninth Army had also begun to arrive in France, eventually taking their place alongside the First and Third. Units from these three armies would comprise America’s response to the German Ardennes offensive. Patton’s arrival and Bradley’s elevation were only revealed by Eisenhower at a press conference on 15 August, the same day that the Allies landed in southern France. This operation, code-named Dragoon, was extremely successful but overshadowed by Overlord in Normandy and consequently is today little known; it saw Lieutenant-General Alexander M. Patch’s US Seventh Army and French forces under Général Jean de Lattre de Tassigny rapidly overwhelm Generaloberst Johannes Blaskowitz’s Army Group ‘G’ along the French Riviera. These Allied forces, which included three US and five French divisions, were eventually redesignated the Sixth Army Group from 15 September 1944.

By this point, Hitler was also smarting from the July attempt on his life and had been informed there were grounds to think his field marshal commanding the defence of Normandy was implicated in the Stauffenberg plot. Accordingly, on 17 August, ten days after the failed Mortain attack, Kluge was recalled. Faced with an interview at No. 8 Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, the most feared address in the Third Reich as the Gestapo’s Berlin HQ, Kluge seemed to confirm his guilt by taking poison en route. Hitler had never trusted Kluge but the Führer’s SS valet, Heinz Linge, remembered his boss was convinced ‘that the English had poisoned him after they had failed to convince the Generalfeldmarschall to come over to their side’, for which, it has to be said, there is absolutely no evidence.7 His replacement was another field marshal, Walther Model, a soldier far more to Hitler’s liking.

Although a product of the General Staff, the monocle-wearing Model was no aristocrat, coming from a lower-middle-class, non-military family and therefore closer to the classless ideals of National Socialism. In April 1940 he had been a colonel, and was promoted to Generalfeldmarschall exactly four years later, evidence of his sheer ability. In June 1941 he had led 3rd Panzer Division into Russia, yet by January 1942 he was commanding the Ninth Army. Though he asserted that he was a committed Nazi, Model’s merciless command style and military effectiveness frequently coincided with Hitler’s wishes, and that is not quite the same thing: he was more ruthless fellow-traveller than dedicated Party fanatic.

Model was a hard-driving, aggressive panzer leader, superbly self-confident, abrasive and unpopular with superior and subordinate officers, though feted by his troops, whose lives he did not hesitate to sacrifice if he felt the need. He knew how to handle soldiers and was usually at the front, where his presence was felt to be lucky. Although known as Hitler’s Feuerwehrmann (fireman) for his ability to retrieve desperate situations, he was not afraid to stand up to his Führer. Early in Model’s tenure of Ninth Army, which he led for two years in Russia, Hitler had started to interfere with his dispositions. After a heated debate, Model turned to Hitler, held his gaze and asked simply, ‘Who commands the Ninth Army, my Führer; you or I?’ His boss wavered, uncharacteristically, and thereafter left him to it, with perhaps a sneaking admiration for his cheek, which very few dared replicate. His deadliest weapon against superiors and subordinates alike was contemptuous silence, while his glance could freeze scalding-hot coffee, Hitler once remarking, ‘Did you see those eyes? I wouldn’t want to serve under him.’

A more accurate description of Model’s particular skill throughout 1943–4 was as a ‘frontline patchwork artist of the first order’.8 Manteuffel’s observation to Liddell Hart, made in 1945, that Model was ‘not a great strategist, but … had a ruthless energy in scraping up reserves from a bare cupboard, and was one of the few generals who dared argue with Hitler’, precisely echoes this.9 Until Rundstedt’s return in September, Model would wear the twin hats of OB West as well as commanding Army Group ‘B’. His significance for our story was as the operational commander of the Ardennes offensive.

On 19 August, even while his Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies were encircled within the Falaise Pocket in Normandy and in their final death throes, Hitler again discussed the rearming of the Siegfried Line; he knew it was just a hollow shell, for its weapons had been removed and installed in the Atlantic Wall before D-Day and had now been captured.10 The Westwall was a pet project of Hitler’s; he had designed it in the 1930s partly as a propaganda exercise to demonstrate Germany’s building abilities, as well as for defence. Comprising more than 18,000 bunkers, it stretched 400 miles from Holland to the Swiss frontier. At a time when the Reich needed to build houses, 20 per cent of annual cement production and 5 per cent of steel output had been diverted to this massive state enterprise. Built by the Inspector-General for Reich Highways, Dr Fritz Todt, between 1936 and 1940, using half a million workers, 25 per cent of the nation’s construction industry, it had cost a crippling 3.5 billion Reichsmarks.11


Building ‘dragon’s teeth’ tank obstacles in front of the Westwall. Hitler was unwilling to abandon this defensive line of 18,000 bunkers to the Allies. In August 1944, even before the fall of Normandy, he ordered the Westwall refurbished, and from these positions his men poured forth to attack the US Army in December. (Author’s collection)

In 1944 the Führer was unwilling simply to abandon one of his major pre-war programmes to the Allies, hence diverting attention and resources to the obsolete and largely irrelevant Westwall. Taken with his 31 July notion of ‘a decision in the west’, and reanalysis of the 1940 campaign, it becomes obvious that Hitler was not just thinking in terms of defence, but some sort of decisive counter-attack. He had already realised that Normandy was lost, and that he had almost no means of halting the Allies until they reached the German frontier. The Ardennes was still not mentioned specifically at this stage, though it was implicit, given the requirement to study 1940, while the idea grew through August and into September that any ‘change in the situation will have to be brought about by an attack originating from the Westwall’.12

By 22 August the Falaise Pocket had been overwhelmed, and more than 70,000 troops had been killed or captured, while perhaps 20,000 with fewer than fifty tanks had escaped – the sad remnants of nineteen experienced divisions which had been deployed to Normandy. Later, the RAF’s No. 2 Operational Research Section counted 187 tanks and self-propelled guns, 157 other armoured fighting vehicles, 1,778 lorries, 669 cars and 252 artillery pieces abandoned or destroyed in the area.13 No count was made of horse-drawn transport, while the stench of uncounted thousands of decaying horses in the hot August weather was so overpowering that investigators had to hurry past; consequently, the region was quarantined for the next sixty days. Normandy is reckoned to have cost the Reich 1,500 panzers, 3,500 guns, 20,000 vehicles and nearly 500,000 men, many of whom could have been pulled back across the Seine to fight another day. Their numbers would be sorely missed in the winter campaign, though the two parent formations, Fifth Panzer and Seventh Armies, would re-emerge in the Ardennes attack. Privately, those who knew referred to the debacle as ‘Stalingrad in Normandy’.

The experience of Gefreiter Alfred Becker, a twenty-year-old in the 326th Infantry Division, was typical of most. Somehow, he managed to survive Normandy when most of his comrades did not; his formation was completely annihilated. Always on the move and constantly harassed by Allied artillery and the Jabos (from Jagdbomber, the German for Allied fighter-bomber), his unit quickly unravelled and separated. They soon lost their supply chain and ran out of ammunition. Water and food they took from French farmers when they could, or butchered livestock. The seriously wounded usually had to be abandoned to their fate as there were no medical supplies, nor the means to convey them. Becker himself was injured, though not through enemy action. Nevertheless, he recalled, that after he had made it back across the Siegfried Line, he was awarded a Verwundetenabzeichen (Wound Badge, like a Purple Heart). ‘They came in black, silver and gold. Black was the lowest grade, you got it for minor wounds. If you got your legs blown off they would give you a gold one, or if you were wounded lots of times. They gave mine to me in hospital. A guy next to me had tried to fire a Panzerfaust and it blew up, killing him. I could barely see because I had gravel blown into my eyes and cuts on my head. When I told the doctor what happened, he said, “No, you are mistaken. An enemy bullet hit the weapon and blew it up. You have an honourable wound”. Hah. I wore the medal on the pocket of my new field blouse when I left hospital.’14

The victory at Falaise is commonly attributed to the efficacy of Allied airpower against German armour, but after-action surveys of captured panzers revealed that relatively few had been hit by fighter-bombers, while some had even been abandoned intact, with full fuel tanks. Inaccuracy was an issue that plagued both the RAF and USAAF, for all airborne tactical weapons (cannon shells and rockets) were then unguided. Nevertheless, the impression both of panzer crews and OKW was that the Allied air forces were all-powerful. Close air support was also responsible for numerous friendly-fire instances reported in Normandy: ‘Wish you would tell the Air Corps we don’t want them over here,’ an irate staff officer had demanded of his chain of command, following a raid by friendly P-47s on a US artillery battalion which wounded several men.15 By 1944 tactical air cover over the battlefront was a great psychological weapon against German ground forces, however, regardless of the actual damage it caused.16 This would remain the case in December – when the planes could fly.

August 1944 was probably the worst month militarily in the history of the Third Reich, for the bad news flooded in from west and east. On the Russian Front, notwithstanding the loss of the 400,000 men of Army Group Centre, 20 August saw the Soviets launch a new attack which resulted in the loss of Romania by the end of the month, and with it the vital Ploesti oilfields, Germany’s only source of this basic resource so crucial to her war machine. On 26 August, Bulgaria formally withdrew from the Axis, while in September Finland would also discount herself as one of Hitler’s coalition partners, and Hungary began to wobble. It was not just the loss of this political coalition that damaged the Third Reich. The regime had now lost its call on Ukrainian manganese, French bauxite, nickel from Finland, coal, lead, zinc, copper and mercury from Yugoslavia, while Turkish chrome, Portuguese and Spanish mercury, nickel and tungsten, and supplies of high-grade iron ore from Sweden, were in doubt, as neutral countries began to reassess who was likely to win the European war. The loss of steel from France and Belgium cut the Reich’s output back by one third. Without tungsten and chrome, for example, factories could not produce armour plate. Collectively, this threatened the Reich’s continued capacity to wage war, and in September 1944 it was calculated by Albert Speer’s Armaments Ministry that Germany had stockpiled enough raw materials to last only another year of conflict. Hitler realised he now had a time constraint in which to force a military solution in the west.17

Back in the Wolfsschanze on 24 August, previous discussions about the Westwall had translated into a Führerbefehl (Hitler Order), calling for the strengthening of its defensive positions by mobilising hundreds of thousands of civilian labourers, directed by local Nazi officials. Away from the combat zone, security and administration of the rear areas was the responsibility of the Commander of the Ersatzheer (Reserve Army). Stauffenberg, executed on 20 July, had been its chief of staff, and several of its senior officers in Berlin were part of his plot. In the immediate aftermath, the utterly loyal head of the SS and Gestapo, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, took over the Reserve Army, to wield even more dreadful power than hitherto. This was a time when zealous Gauleiters (the forty-three regional political leaders of the Reich) and SS officials competed with one another to prove their loyalty to Hitler. Frequently they confused activity with achievement, and very little of practical value had been done along the Siegfried Line by the time the Allies neared the German frontier, whereupon OB West took back responsibility for military defence of the Westwall and its vicinity.18

On 25 August, tank columns from Général Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armoured Division had freed Paris, assisting the French Resistance who had risen against the German garrison; this was a sure sign if nothing else that France was lost. The move towards Paris was actually a deviation from Eisenhower’s strategy of advancing to Germany as quickly as possible, and liberation of his own capital gave Général de Brigade (the rank he held when marooned in Britain in June 1940) Charles de Gaulle the credibility and authority he needed to establish a provisional government, avoiding Eisenhower’s planned administration by the ponderous Allied Military Government for Occupied Territories (AMGOT). De Gaulle wisely called on his countrymen to do their ‘duty of war’ and help the Allies complete the liberation of France, the Benelux countries and invade Germany. Consequently, three days later, on 28 August, the French Resistance was incorporated into his army (already totally reliant on US vehicles, uniforms and weapons). De Gaulle and the politics of ceding recently liberated French territory back to the Germans would become a huge issue during the Ardennes campaign.

Another hint of Hitler’s plans came on 1 September, when he promoted the diminutive Hasso von Manteuffel – he was all of five feet four inches – whom the Führer had last met on 30 July, to General der Panzertruppe and gave him the leadership of Fifth Panzer Army, then fighting on the Western Front. Manteuffel had spent the previous two years in the east, and switching a talented commander away from Russia demonstrates that Hitler’s attention was now focused elsewhere. This was a huge vote of Hitlerian confidence in the forty-seven-year-old Baron, for he had skipped the intermediate challenge of first commanding an army corps. Straightaway he had a series of defensive battles ahead of him in Lorraine; pushed back over the next few weeks, his army was soon pulled out of the line to refit. His real test would arrive in December when he took Fifth Panzer into the Ardennes.

Also on 1 September, Hitler reappointed Field Marshal von Rundstedt, whom he had sacked two months earlier, as OB West. Percy Schramm, the OKW historian, assessed Rundstedt as ‘one of the cleverest operational brains’, which was one reason why Hitler had recalled the elderly (he was sixty-nine) marshal to service.19 Rundstedt arrived in Koblenz on 5 September, allowing Model, who had been dual-hatted with responsibility for Army Group ‘B’ as well as OB West, to concentrate on the battle for France and Belgium. Generalleutnant Siegfried Westphal was assigned as Rundstedt’s chief of staff. The former had been promoted unusually early in his career – at forty-two, he was twenty-seven years younger than his boss – because of his exceptional ability and had previously worked for Kesselring in Italy in the same capacity; he took up his new post on 9 September. Since his dismissal in July, Rundstedt had been forced to serve the Reich in a different capacity. In the wake of the 20 July plot, Hitler ordered the convening of the Ehrenhof der Wehrmacht (Armed Forces’ Court of Honour), a cynical legalistic device to expel military officers involved in the Stauffenberg plot from the forces, so they could suffer the indignity of a public trial and humiliating death. Rundstedt was forced to head it, with his fellow field marshal, Keitel, and Generaloberst Guderian, appointed head of OKH and the Army General Staff on 21 July.

The Court became an arena for settling old personal grudges or protecting protégés, and not all officers presented to it were expelled. For example, Hans Speidel, Rommel’s old chief of staff at Army Group ‘B’, who was in the plot up to his neck, was removed from his post, but protected and survived to become the post-war head of the Bundeswehr. Speidel’s replacement at Army Group ‘B’ was the monocle-wearing General Hans Krebs, who had previously worked for Field Marshal Model on the Eastern Front, and was brought over to be reunited with his old boss as chief of staff at Army Group ‘B’.20 The removal of these talented officers from the east – Model, Manteuffel and Krebs, among many more – was a sure indication of Hitler’s attention turning more and more towards a decision in the west. Meanwhile, the Ehrenhof worked hard, cashiering fifty-five officers, including a field marshal and nine generals. None of the accused appeared before it, their guilt being determined by Gestapo reports. Thus ejected from the army, all were handed over to the quasi-legal Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court), a road to certain death.

The surviving perpetrators of 20 July began to be tried by the People’s Court on 7 August and were sentenced to death by hanging. At the Führer’s request, depraved movies were made of their slow and agonising deaths, dangling by piano wire from meat hooks at the Plötzensee prison, in north-west Berlin, which he watched with his circle at the Wolfsschanze. Hitler’s architect-turned-Armaments Minister, Albert Speer, remembered noticing a pile of photographs on a table; ‘it was a picture of a hanged man in convict dress … One of the SS leaders standing near me remarked in explanation, “That’s [Field Marshal] Witzleben. Don’t you want to see the others too? These are all photos of the executions”.’21

Nearly 5,000 were murdered in the wake of 20 July, the regime using the opportunity to execute all critics, even potential political and religious opponents, whether connected to Stauffenberg or not. Many victims were well-connected upper-middle-class intellectuals, which meant that most of Germany’s ruling elite knew someone who had disappeared. Among the executed, for example, was a schoolmistress, Elisabeth von Thadden, sister to the wife of Major Percy Schramm. The essential point of all this – the Sippenhaft law, the Ehrenhof and the People’s Court – was that the professional classes running the Third Reich for Hitler, particularly those officers involved in planning and executing the Ardennes attack, had terror breathing down their necks. Just as the Führer intended, they knew that unless they served the Reich with unswerving loyalty and fanaticism, they and their families were doomed.

Whatever his command skills, Rundstedt’s re-employment was principally a propaganda exercise, designed to raise the morale of the officer corps after 20 July and steady the German people. It also impressed the Allies (as it was designed to do), who believed him to be more powerful and influential than he was. Rundstedt allowed himself to become a figurehead for the forthcoming offensive. The operational control, however, remained with the energetic and ruthless Field Marshal Model. Such was the state of affairs that Rundstedt probably had no choice in either of his appointments, to the Court of Honour or OB West, as the consequences of refusing the Führer in the autumn of 1944 were too terrible to contemplate. At the time of his reappointment, Rundstedt’s job, he was told, was to defend forward of the Siegfried Line for as long as possible, then withdraw as ordered. No more. He was not told of Hitler’s intentions for the Ardennes (if they were concrete in the late summer of 1944), but he was told of Hitler’s desire for an armoured counter-attack, to wrest back the initiative, possibly from the Vosges region.

The appointments of Manteuffel and Rundstedt are evidence of Hitler assembling the commanders he wished for the coming offensive: one a tactical genius, the other a name to bring reassurance. (The latter would be mortified to learn that Allied newspapers and generals eventually labelled the attack the ‘Rundstedt Offensive’.) These twin appointments were complemented on 3 September – the fifth anniversary of the advent of war with Great Britain – by the advancement of General der Panzertruppe Erich Brandenberger to command the Seventh Army. This unfortunate formation had been the sitting tenant in Normandy when the Allies arrived on Tuesday, 6 June, and destroyed in all but name during the subsequent campaign. The steady Eastern Front veteran would be its fourth commander in three months, his predecessor, Heinrich Eberbach, having been captured on 31 August by the British at Amiens. Brandenberger would lead the Seventh to the Bulge in December.

On the day of General der Panzertruppe Eberbach’s capture, at the Wolfsschanze came another hint of the workings of the Führer’s mind – evidence that a decisive offensive was in the offing. Hitler announced to Keitel that he would ‘fight on until he had secured a peace which safeguarded the Reich for the next century’, which ‘above all does not besmirch our honour a second time, as happened in 1918’, but he regarded the moment ‘not yet right for negotiation’ with the Western Allies: ‘such moments come only when you are victorious’.22

Whether or not Hitler was thinking specifically of a counter- offensive from the Ardennes, he was actively considering ways of regaining the initiative. On 24 August, the newly appointed Model (in office for one week) had proposed concentrating the remaining panzer divisions on a flank of the advancing US First or Third Armies, to strike one of them a deadly blow. Initially events dictated an attack from the Vosges, but from his own appointment in September, Rundstedt saw his main challenge as enabling his forces to retreat in good order, retaining as much of their equipment as possible, rather than standing firm to create an assembly area for an attack, and risking encirclement as they did so. Rundstedt’s first directive, issued on 3 September, spoke of the ‘heavily worn out German forces and the impossibility of providing quickly adequate reinforcements’, and the need to ‘gain as much time as possible … for the build-up of the Western Position [i.e. the Westwall].’23

Hitler thought otherwise, and immediately seized on Model’s proposals, enlarging them into a grand, strategic counter-blow from the line of retreat, possibly using the Vosges as an assembly area, which became Manteuffel’s first task on taking over Fifth Panzer Army. The Wehrmacht, however, was never allowed the luxury of time to assemble and deploy enough tanks and troops, so the decisive strike kept being postponed due to the speed of the Allied advance. This explains Hitler’s obsessional desire for a counter-attack throughout late August and into September, even though military circumstances consistently denied him any opportunity; by 14 September there was nowhere else from which to launch a decisive blow except the Westwall.

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