In mid-December 1944, six months after the Allied forces under the command of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower landed on the beaches of Normandy, Adolf Hitler unleashed Operation “Watch on the Rhine,” a powerful counteroffensive against the massive Anglo-American armies on the Western front. Hitler hoped that an attack by three armies – the Sixth and Fifth Panzer and the infantry-heavy Seventh – through the thick forests of the Ardennes would end with the capture of the great Belgian port city of Antwerp, force the British and Canadians to evacuate in a second Dunkirk, and cause a split between the U.S. and their British allies.
Against the advice of his generals, Germany’s overlord transferred several badly-needed panzer divisions from the Eastern Front to the West in order to make his apocalyptic vision a reality. Hitler knew that the Ardennes counteroffensive was one last roll of the dice to stave off certain defeat. But the Fuhrer was confident that the weather, the element of surprise, and the perception that Eisenhower would react slowly to a German attack would tip the balance of fate in his favor.
In the early morning hours of Saturday, December 16, 1944, the Germans launched their attack along an 80 mile front in the heavily-wooded Ardennes region in Belgium and Luxembourg. The Allies, who believed that the Third Reich was on the brink of defeat and in no shape for offensive action in the West, were caught by surprise. And even though Hitler’s military experts believed “Watch on the Rhine” had only a small of success, many of the German junior officers and soldiers believed it was their nation’s best hope to turn the fortunes of war around and at least force the Allies into a negotiated peace that ensured the Reich’s continued existence.
The resulting battle, fought under the harshest of winter conditions, was the largest clash of arms on the Western front. Over a million men, 600,000 of them Americans, fought in the Ardennes counteroffensive, or, as it is colloquially known, the Battle of the Bulge. It started on that dark Saturday morning in mid-December, and before it ended on January 25, 1945, 19,000 Americans, 200 British, and an unknown number of Germans (who suffered 67,000 to 125,000 casualties, including dead, wounded, and captured) had died in the Battle of the Bulge. For the Allies, Hitler’s last gamble was a resounding victory. For Germany, it was a calamity from which its army never recovered.
In the pages of British historian Antony Beevor’s latest book about World War II, “Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge,” readers get a comprehensive and fascinating look at the six-week-long struggle that determined the outcome of the war on both the Eastern and Western fronts. Beevor, a former officer in the British Army and the best-selling author of “Stalingrad” and “D-Day,” recounts one of the most complex and decisive struggles of the Allied liberation of Western Europe.
As in his previous books about the war, Beevor strikes a good balance between the points of view of the generals and their high level strategies and those of the enlisted men and civilians who endured the savage conditions of war on the front lines. He covers such topics as the often acrimonious relationship between Eisenhower and his senior British subordinate, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the fall battles that took place along Germany’s western frontier, and famous incidents of the Battle of the Bulge. These include the Germans’ attempt to send teams of commandos wearing U.S. uniforms behind Allied lines to cause havoc there, the siege of Bastogne, and the infamous Malmedy massacre.
Beevor is not only well-versed in military history, but he is also a good storyteller. Here, for instance, he describes an incident that took place in August 1944 that foreshadows the tensions between “Ike” and “Monty” during the fall campaign.
“On their return to Chartres, Eisenhower invited General Sir Bernard Montgomery to join de Gaulle and Bradley for the parade, but he refused to come to Paris. Such a small but pertinent detail did not deter certain British newspapers from accusing the Americans of trying to hog all the glory for themselves. Inter-Allied relations were to be severely damaged by the compulsion in Fleet Street to see almost every decision by SHAEF as a slight to Montgomery and thus the British. This reflected the more widespread resentment that Britain was being sidelined. The Americans were now running the show and would claim the victory for themselves. Eisenhower’s British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was alarmed by the prejudice of the English press: ‘From what I heard at SHAEF, I could not help fearing that this process was sowing the seeds of a grave split between the Allies.’”
Antony Beevor is not only a retired military officer who studied under the late John Keegan, but he has also written four novels in addition to the 11 non-fiction books he has authored or co-authored with his wife Artemis Cooper. Thus, his writer’s tool-kit includes a fine eye for detail, an ability to clearly describe characters’ personalities and motivations, and a strong sense of his narrative’s setting in time and space.
“Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge” is a highly readable account of one of World War II’s bloodiest and most decisive battles. It is well-written, informative, fast-paced, and full of the drama and pathos of war. It’s also a worthy successor to classic works on the Battle of the Bulge such as Charles B. MacDonald’s “A Time for Trumpets” and John Toland’s “Battle: The Story of the Bulge.”
- Hardcover: 480 pages
- Publisher: Viking (November 3, 2015)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670025313
- ISBN-13: 978-0670025312