Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
Snow & Steel Battle of the Bulge 1944-45
Peter Caddick-Adams Preface, 6 November 2014
This is a very weighty tome: 50 pages of preamble, 716 pages of meat, 7 of acknowledgments, 113 pages of notes and bibliography. You can conclude that it is very thorough!
Caddick-Adams, like his hero and late mentor, the much respected Richard Holmes, has been both an officer in the TA, and a military historian who teaches the British military (with a strong emphasis on battlefield guiding). After books on Monte Cassino and Monty & Rommel, he has turned to what would appear to be his defining love, nay obsession, the Battle of the Bulge – Nazi Germany’s last real attempt at a breakout as the Allies approached the Fatherland.
Goering had mismanaged the Luftwaffe into a state of ineffectiveness by the close of 1944. Hence Hitler and his planning staff reached the surprisingly sensible conclusion that any breakout would have to be staged in a period of very inclement weather in order to prevent the Allies using their air superiority to annul the German attack even as forces were assembling.
The author sets out the state of the Reich in 1944, and points out that Hitler was the pinnacle of lots of competing fiefdoms, creating a whole which became ever more dysfunctional as resources became scarcer. He asserts that one of the motivations for the Reich at this time was Roosevelt’s comments at the Casablanca conference that the Allies’ endgame was the unconditional surrender of their enemy.
He devotes a lot of prose to describing the careers of the senior commanders in the action, drawing conclusions about their strengths and weakness, and predilections. Caddick-Adams notes that Eisenhower was handicapped by the lack of any personal combat experience (he rose to the top by being a perfect staff officer), leading to him being consensual in his treatment of his subordinates.
Initiating a campaign in the depths of winter in some of Europe’s most hostile terrain was always going to be a challenge. CA is at his best when setting out the huge logistical challenge facing the Germans. Although one would not know it from the Nazi propaganda newsreels of the era, the army of the petrol-starved Reich was for the most part supplied by horse-drawn convoys. Motorised transport was woefully inadequate, and the resource imbalance with their enemy was immense. More of a surprise is that the Germans’ maps were simply pathetic (which severely constrained the Panzer divisions’ excursions off-road). Of course with no command of the air, the Germans could not employ photo reconnaissance to improve them (in contrast to the Allies’ D Day preparations).
After a hundred pages or so this reader was itching for the battle to start, but Caddick-Adams disappears up forest trails. First a riff on the influence of Wagner on the Nazi hierarchy; a few pages later Hitler’s liking of woods and underground bunkers. The benefits of Ultra intelligence and the importance of Bletchley Park are discussed at length, but then so too is the excellence of German signals intelligence, about which one hears much less.
Whilst the dysfunctional nature of Hitler’s command structure leaps from every chapter, CA notes too that under Ike intelligence officers of his component armies were culturally averse to collaborating. This was one hole in the Swiss cheese which allowed the Germans to spring the surprise of their offensive. The author sets out copious evidence of the German preparations that the Americans should really have identified.
It is not until p 265 that the fighting actually starts. Yet the dramatic tempo is lost by continuous profiles of senior and middle commanders, and CA’s travelogues as he points out the state of the battlefield in the 21st century. Somehow Max Hastings, and Anthony Beevor, who have the same approach of addressing great campaigns but with lots of granular information, succeed in this task with little loss of pace. However CA does match these great historians with a broad sweep of first person accounts, which make the battles much more vivid. His clearly in-depth research brings out many colourful vignettes such as Ernest Hemingway (as a war correspondent) drinking communion wine, to refill the empty bottles with his own urine!
Apart from a lack of fuel, motorised transport and fresh (but trained) troops, CA brings out how the rigidity of Hitler’s command and control system was a major contributor to the campaign’s failure. Inherent rigidity of thinking was another; and madcap schemes such as an airborne assault (with barely trained parachutists) look, with hindsight, to have been doomed to failure.
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