By Carlo D’Este
By October, and continuing throughout the autumn of 1944, the various Allied intelligence staffs were aware that the Germans had assembled the Sixth Panzer Army in the area east of Aachen. However, the positioning of its divisions was misinterpreted by Allied intelligence as preparation for defending the Reich against what SHAEF defined as “a final showdown before the winter,” rather than as the preparation for a massive counteroffensive. The lone exception was the astute Third Army G-2, Col. Oscar Koch, who was not deceived by the German buildup opposite the Ardennes. Even as Patton’s Third Army staff was planning a major new offensive, to commence on December 19, to crack the Siegfried Line and drive to the Rhine, Eisenhower had already made up his mind, “regardless of the results” of the forthcoming offensive, to transfer divisions from Third Army to the northern armies to support a breaching of the Rhine and the main assault into the heartland of the Reich. While Koch closely noted signs of further German buildup, Third Army was also planning measures to counter any potential threat in the Ardennes so that, as Patton told his staff, “We’ll be in a position to meet whatever happens.”
By mid-December there was something of a lull in the bloodletting, brought about largely by the weather. In the rugged, heavily forested Ardennes, with its poor road net, Bradley had taken what he later described as “a calculated risk” by lightly defending what had traditionally been a major German invasion route. On the thinly held front lines were only two newly arrived, untested American infantry divisions and two battered veteran divisions of Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps in the process of absorbing replacements. In such vile weather it was deemed unlikely that the Germans could mount a serious threat. Moreover, despite Germany’s historical pattern of initiating counteroffensives when things looked darkest, it was assumed by the Allied high command that there was simply no way the Germans could secretly pull off such an operation in the Ardennes. As early as November 25 Patton had disagreed, noting that “First Army is making a terrible mistake in leaving VIII Corps static, it is highly probable that the Germans are building up east of them.”
The dispersal of American units in the Ardennes was a direct result of Eisenhower’s broad-front strategy, which had been reduced to, as one historian has noted, “the premise that ‘more is better’—that is, more tanks, more bullets, more beans, more fuel, and above all more men. ‘More men’ was Eisenhower’s principal worry on 16 December 1944, not the threat of a German attack.” Indeed, the existing situation in the Ardennes, concludes Russell Weigley, revealed a fundamental and damaging flaw: “It was not that the broad-front strategy was wrong; the more basic trouble was that the Anglo-American alliance had not given Eisenhower enough troops to carry it out safely…. There were not enough Anglo-American divisions, or enough replacements for casualties in the existing divisions. Eisenhower could not create a reserve unless he abandoned the broad-front strategy.”
Moreover, notes Weigley, “the events unfolding in the Ardennes on December 16 indicated that the ninety-division gamble had gone sour. The American army in Europe fought on too narrow a margin of physical superiority for the favored American broad-front strategy to be anything but a risky gamble.” Eisenhower would later accept—and fully deserve—responsibility for the dispositions of his armies, which permitted the Germans to mount their counteroffensive. Yet there was another basic reason why the Allies were about to be caught with their pants down: “Everyone at SHAEF was thinking offensively, about what they could do to the enemy, and never about what the enemy might do to them.”
The German counteroffensive in the Ardennes would turn out to be the latest example of the principle learned and relearned the hard way by the Allies during World War II: Expect the unexpected. From North Africa to Arnhem and the Ardennes, the German army could be counted on never to panic and always to fight back tenaciously with whatever reserves could be mustered. Thus it should not have come as the surprise it did that, with Allied operations at a standstill and the Third Reich on the verge of invasion from both east and west, Adolf Hitler elected to gamble the fate of Germany on a last-ditch attempt to salvage the war by a sudden, lightning thrust through the Ardennes.
The twin keys to a German success were surprise and speed: splitting the Allied front and driving across the Meuse before the Allies could react. Hitler’s intent was nothing less than the destruction of all Allied forces north of a line running from Bastogne to Antwerp. Seeking to repeat the success of the 1940 invasion of western Europe, which had worked to near perfection, Hitler believed that once across the river Meuse and into the Belgian lowlands beyond the Ardennes, his armies could drive clear to Antwerp and, with this vital port in German hands, compel the Allies to sue for peace.
To accomplish this Herculean task, Hitler assembled in great secrecy a massive force of three armies, consisting of twenty-eight divisions, twelve of them panzer, to launch the first and only German counteroffensive of the war in northwestern Europe.
However, Hitler’s senior commanders responsible for carrying out his orders had severe misgivings. When they first heard of the plan in late October 1944, both the reinstated commander in chief west, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and the commander of German ground forces (Army Group B), Field Marshal Walther Model, opposed Hitler’s Ardennes counteroffensive. Model, who had earned the Fuhrer’s trust, was typically blunt: “This plan hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.” Both commanders believed that to seize Antwerp was a hopelessly unrealistic goal and attempted to persuade Hitler to scale down its scope. Their advice was ignored, even though Hitler himself understood the extent of his gamble. The alternative was worse: the certain loss of the war and the destruction of Germany in a rear-guard action against the powerful vise of the Russian and Allied armies.
Nevertheless, in early December both Model and his two panzer army commanders, Waffen SS general “Sepp” Dietrich and General der Panzertruppen Hasso von Manteuffel, spoke forcefully at a conference with Hitler, urging that the plan be reconsidered. Hitler once again adamantly refused, and under the cover of the bitter winter weather, more than fourteen hundred tanks, two thousand guns, and twenty divisions were quietly moved forward into the thick forests of the Schnee Eifel on the eastern fringes of the Ardennes to await the signal to attack.
At SHAEF, Saturday, December 16, 1944, began on a promising note for Eisenhower. He was presented the Polish Medal of Honor at a ceremony and learned that Roosevelt had nominated him for the exalted five-star rank of general of the army. Noted Butcher in his diary, “The man who always cautioned his family not to expect him to be promoted has risen from lieutenant colonel to five-star general in three years, three months, and sixteen days.” Eisenhower seemed elated. “God, I just want to see the first time I sign my name as General of the Army,” he said when congratulated by Bradley’s aide, Chet Hansen.
Also on December 16, his faithful orderly, Mickey McKeogh, was married to a WAC driver named Pearlie Hargreaves, whom he had met in North Africa. With Eisenhower’s blessing the two were married in the ancient chapel of King Louis XIV on a bitterly cold afternoon. Except for Eisenhower, whose only defense against the cold was his uniform blouse, the guests sat huddled in heavy overcoats during the ceremony in the freezing cold chapel. Afterward Eisenhower turned over his quarters for a reception for the newlyweds. The beaming bride earned a kiss from the supreme commander, who presented the couple with a one-hundred-dollar war bond.
Bradley arrived later that afternoon to discuss the growing replacement crisis and briefly joined Eisenhower at the reception. The two generals then attended an early-evening meeting in the SHAEF war room with Bedell Smith, Spaatz, Tedder, and Kenneth Strong, the SHAEF G-2. The meeting had barely begun when Strong was summoned by his deputy, Brig. Gen. Tom Betts, who appeared at the door, his usual calm demeanor visibly missing. When Strong returned it was to reveal that fragmentary reports revealed that a series of powerful German attacks had commenced in the eastern Ardennes at dawn against the weakest link in the Allied front, a thinly dispersed cavalry group and the newly arrived, unblooded 106th Division, which had been put there by Bradley primarily to keep them out of harm’s way. Although what SHAEF knew at this point was sketchy, Strong suggested that the attack more than likely posed a serious threat to First Army.
The German buildup in the sparsely populated Schnee Eifel had, with the exception of the Third Army’s Koch, deceived intelligence officers up and down the Allied chain of command. Despite a steady influx of timely information from Ultra and other reliable sources, the German attack in the Ardennes revealed serious lapses in Allied intelligence, whose G-2s had, at the very least, been provided sufficient evidence of the German buildup to discern that something major was afoot in the Ardennes. In mid-November SHAEF had concluded that the Germans were preparing to defend against an offensive that they believed the Allies would launch around Aachen, aimed at Cologne and the Ruhr. That judgment never varied despite fresh evidence of a German buildup to the south. Lulled by deception measures worthy of Fortitude, the Allies, from Eisenhower on down, were convinced that German intentions were purely defensive. The Allies seemed wedded to the belief that it was Rundstedt who was making the military decisions in the west in December 1944, failing to grasp that they were not the “rational, ‘traditional’ decisions of von Rundstedt but . . . those of Hitler. The Allied High Command,” wrote French historian Jacques Nobecourt, “was indulging in wishful thinking.”
Eisenhower was ill served by Strong and his intelligence staff, who were reluctant to submit intelligence estimates of a negative nature. A British intelligence officer in the SHAEF G-2, Noel Annan, observed that their intelligence appreciations
were tuned to justify Eisenhower’s policy to attack all along the line. This policy required intelligence to report the German army as being incapable of mounting an offensive. Strong was later to say that intelligence officers were regarded as defeatist if they did not believe the end of the war was in sight…. The most spectacular blunder of the interpreters of intelligence was our failure to forecast the German offensive in the Ardennes.
In early December, Strong had warned only of a possible disruptive German spoiling attack somewhere in the Ardennes during a period of bad weather. Bedell Smith took the threat seriously and had sent Strong to personally warn Bradley, who dismissed the forecast with the observation that he had already made provisions to reinforce the Ardennes. The danger, he said, was exaggerated: “Let them come.”
Despite the news on December 16, Bradley again dismissed the reports as merely localized attacks designed to hamper forthcoming offensives by his First and Third Armies. Eisenhower was not misled and at once emphatically disagreed, declaring, “That’s no spoiling attack.” At the instant when decisions were crucial, it was Eisenhower, not Bradley, who took the initiative to act without hesitation even though the situation was chaotic and ill defined. While German intentions were still unclear at this early stage, from the time of the first reports by Strong, Eisenhower was convinced that the German attack was a serious attempt to split the Allied front, and reacted accordingly. Why else, he reasoned, would they even bother attacking in an area that led nowhere and contained no tangible objectives?
This was the first occasion since he had assumed command of Allied ground forces that Eisenhower was able to influence the outcome of a battle. Other than to approve it, he had played no role in Market-Garden. Since then he had been beset by the day-to-day problems brought about by the weather and the breakdown of his broad-front strategy. Now, when it mattered most, he was at the center of a seminal battle whose outcome would determine the final course of the war.
On December 16, facing a dilemma that was a direct result of the broadfront strategy, Eisenhower had no theater reserve to commit to the battle. The only two units available were the veteran but lightly armed U.S. airborne divisions, the 82nd and 101st, both still refitting near Reims from the savage fighting in Holland in September. Neither was adequately equipped for sustained ground combat. Eisenhower’s other dilemma was the same old problem that had plagued SHAEF from the time of its relocation to France: communications. It had taken until early evening on December 16 to learn even fragmentary details of the German attack. To make informed decisions, a commander must have knowledge of the situation he faces. On this day Eisenhower had neither knowledge nor the other vital ingredient, timely intelligence. By early afternoon on December 16, the First Army G-2 already had a captured copy of Rundstedt’s order of the day, which “confirmed that an all-out offensive was under way,” notes the official First Army historian. Yet the First Army staff still could not agree (or would not accept the evidence) that it was a major offensive, and by as late as December 18, “First Army headquarters had little idea of the status of the battle.”
As the two generals weighed the initial Allied reaction, Bradley remained noncommittal, while Eisenhower made a decision to alert the 82nd and 101st Airborne for urgent deployment to the Ardennes as a stopgap measure. Although unwilling to be seen as interfering personally in the conduct of Bradley’s command of his army group, Eisenhower did press Bradley to move quickly to reinforce the Ardennes, pointedly suggesting, “I think you’d better send Middleton some help.” There were two obvious options in the form of two uncommitted U.S. armored divisions, the newly arrived 10th Armored in Third Army, and the 7th Armored, then located north of the penetration, in the Ninth Army sector. Bradley was openly apprehensive at the prospect of issuing orders he knew Patton would loudly and heatedly dispute, but Eisenhower was in no mood for Patton’s histrionics and snapped, “Tell him that Ike is running this damn war.” Bradley’s inertia and Eisenhower’s proactive stance was the first inkling of what would shortly become an open rift between the two friends.
It was early evening when Patton was summoned to the telephone and ordered by Bradley to commit the 10th Armored immediately. The division was to report to Troy Middleton at the crossroads market town of Bastogne, which the VIII Corps commander had already identified as a vital choke point. The decision to shift forces into the Ardennes made, Eisenhower and Bradley attended a second reception for the newlyweds. Before returning to the war room to spend a sleepless night awaiting fresh developments, they played five rubbers of bridge with Everett Hughes and another, and drank a bottle of champagne and the best part of a bottle of Scotch whiskey to celebrate Eisenhower’s promotion.
Bradley remained sufficiently unconcerned that he did not return to his headquarters in Luxembourg until the afternoon of December 17. Just how inaccurate he had been in his assessment was grimly evident during the first two days of the battle. Seventeen German divisions had already been identified, with more to come. From all sections of the Ardennes the news was dismal. The so-called spoiling attack had turned into a torrent as the Germans pressed their attacks with surprising vigor—and success. As the initial penetration deepened, it soon became an enormous “bulge” on the map, hence the nickname given the battle.
On December 17 and 18 Eisenhower and his staff developed the broad outlines of the Allied response. These were to contain and delay the German counteroffensive until a plan of action could be worked out and implemented to defeat it. Eisenhower ordered the two airborne divisions to the Ardennes by truck in a race against time, and summoned Matthew B. Ridgway’s XVIII Airborne Corps HQ from England. The decision where the airborne would be sent Eisenhower left to his staff to determine. Eisenhower’s most powerful weapon, the Allied air forces, remained grounded as the bad weather made any aerial response impossible.
The road net in the Ardennes is sparse, and two sites were vital to stopping the German spearheads: Saint-Vith and Bastogne, where the main east-west roads converged, both of which the German armored columns had to pass through to attain bridgeheads over the river Meuse and before gaining access to the plains of Belgium beyond. Three men played key roles: Bedell Smith, Strong, and the deputy G-3, Maj. Gen. J. F. M “Jock” Whiteley, who was one of Eisenhower’s most trusted staff officers and generally regarded as the ablest British general in SHAEF. Although officially he was the deputy G-3, Smith also employed Whiteley in an unofficial capacity as his deputy chief of staff.
When the three generals closely examined a map of the Ardennes spread out on the floor, it seemed evident that the German attack was aimed at splitting the British and U.S. army groups. It was equally clear that a grave risk existed unless the shoulders of the penetration held firm in the northern and southern Ardennes, and the German advance was confined to the corridor in between, where it could be controlled and eventually defeated. Using a captured German sword, they indicated potential choke points, searching for places critical for the Germans to capture. The point of the sword barely wavered before settling on Bastogne, one of the few towns where the road net in the Ardennes converged.
After Smith was assured that reinforcements could reach Bastogne by road, it was quickly decided to employ the 101st Airborne Division. After a race against the clock, the 101st arrived in Bastogne in the nick of time to join an element of the 10th Armored and several other units just as the Germans began attacking the town, which was soon surrounded and under siege. In the days that followed the 101st would fight the bitterest battles in its distinguished history. The acting commander of the 101st, Brig. Gen. Anthony C. McAuliffe, soon attained immortality when he rejected a German demand to surrender with a single word: “Nuts!” Thereafter Bastogne would come to symbolize one of the finest hours of the U.S. Army.
Back in his headquarters in Luxembourg, Bradley glumly studied his operations map and muttered, “Pardon my French . . . but where in hell has this son of a bitch gotten all his strength?” On December 18 Bradley summoned Patton to Luxembourg, where he displayed on the map the depth of the German penetrations, which were far more serious than Patton had previously thought. Asked what Third Army could do, Patton replied he would have two divisions on the move the next day, and a third in twenty-four hours, if necessary. Although disappointed that his Third Army offensive in the Saar was canceled, Patton shrugged it off with the observation, “What the hell, we’ll still be killing Krauts,” grinning when Bradley assured him they would “hit this bastard hard.” Later that evening Bradley telephoned Patton and directed him to report to Verdun the following morning to meet with Eisenhower and the other SHAEF commanders to determine the Allied response.
On December 19, 1944, Eisenhower, Tedder, Bradley, Devers, Patton, Bedell Smith, and a handful of key SHAEF staff officers converged on Verdun, the scene of the bloodiest battle in history in 1916. Before departing for Verdun, Patton briefed his staff and two of his corps commanders at Third Army headquarters in Nancy, explaining that Third Army would be called on to come to the relief of First Army; how and where would be decided at Verdun.
The meeting site was a dismal second-floor room of a French stone barracks—”a huge heavy structure set in quadrangle form in a sea of mud.” Very little warmth emanated from a potbellied stove, and most attendees kept their coats on to ward off the pervasive chill. Other than a table and chairs, the room was bare save for the easels on which would eventually repose Kenneth Strong’s situation maps. Accompanied by Tedder, Eisenhower arrived at 11:00 A.M. in his armor-plated Cadillac, escorted by military police jeeps with machine guns, “looking grave, almost ashen.” His mood was soon brightened by the presence of Bradley, who awaited him upstairs, and Patton, his stern war face firmly in place, who arrived a short time later, followed by Devers. As always during periods of crisis, Eisenhower’s chief weapon of motivation to defuse tense situations was optimism. However, the cheerfulness he exuded at Verdun seemed forced, and the usual Eisenhower smile could not hide the grimness and the aura of crisis that was present in the room.
Montgomery was absent and had sent de Guingand to represent him. Most thought Monty’s absence a calculated insult to both Eisenhower and themselves, but David Eisenhower has suggested a more plausible reason: “that the British did not want to complicate matters” over what was primarily an American battle. Eisenhower’s impatience was apparent when Strong and Pinky Bull arrived a few minutes late. “Well,” snapped Eisenhower, “I knew my staff would get here; it was only a question of when.”
The atmosphere remained tense despite Eisenhower’s fragile attempt at levity when he opened by announcing, “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.” Patton immediately chimed in, “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 erupted in laughter, much of it forced. Eisenhower replied, “George, that’s fine. But the enemy must never be allowed to cross the Meuse.”
The commanders quickly agreed to stop offensive action in all Allied sectors and concentrate on blunting the German drive. Eisenhower’s strategy was to draw a stop line at the Meuse, beyond which there would be no further retreat. Once the German attacks were contained, the Allies would counterattack. Eisenhower said, “George, I want you to command this move—under Brad’s supervision of course—making a strong counterattack with at least six divisions. When can you start?” Patton replied, “As soon as you’re through with me.” “When can you attack?” Eisenhower asked. “The morning of December 21, with three divisions,” Patton replied instantly.
Forty-eight hours! Eisenhower was not amused, wrongly assuming that Patton had once again picked a very inopportune moment to act boastful. “Don’t be fatuous, George,” he retorted in obvious disbelief. “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.”
Patton, however, was not being flippant. Where others at Verdun came with only vague ideas and without specific plans, Patton, a lifelong student of war, had devised three plans beforehand, each tailored to meet any contingency that Eisenhower and Bradley might direct. “This was the sublime moment of his career,” wrote Martin Blumenson. After more than thirty-four years, it was as if destiny had groomed him for this 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. While near panic existed elsewhere, there was in the Third Army a belief that there existed a magnificent opportunity to strike a killing blow. While others debated or waffled, Patton had understood the problem facing the Allies, had created a plan to counterattack the Germans and occupy Bastogne, which—although not yet surrounded—was clearly soon to be besieged. By contrast, Bradley, whose army group had been attacked, “mostly observed” throughout the two-hour conference, “saying little, offering nothing.” Even he realized that the only principal players were Eisenhower and Patton.
Opinions vary, but certainly the reaction of some present that day was skepticism of yet another smug prediction by Patton that was quite out of place in this somber setting. Strong noted, “There was some laughter, especially from British officers, when Patton answered ‘Forty-eight hours.’ ” Patton’s aide, Lt. Col. Charles R. Codman, witnessed “a stir, a shuffling of feet, as those present straightened up in their chairs. In some faces skepticism. But through the room the current of excitement leaped like a flame.” John Eisenhower wrote, “Witnesses to the occasion testify to the electric effect of this exchange. The prospect of relieving three divisions from the line, turning them north, and [moving them] over icy roads to Arlon to prepare for a major counterattack in less than seventy-two hours was astonishing, even to a group accustomed to flexibility in their military operations.”
“It meant a 90-degree turn that would pose logistical nightmares—getting divisions on new roads and making sure supplies reached them from dumps established in quite a different context, for quite a different situation. Altogether it was an operation only a master could think of executing,” notes Blumenson. Moreover, only a commander with exceptional confidence in his subordinate commanders and in the professional skill of his fighting divisions could dare risk such a venture. Patton not only never hesitated but embraced the opportunity to turn a potential military debacle into a triumph.
Cigar in hand, Patton illustrated his intentions on the map. Pointing to the obvious “bulge” in the Saint-Vith-Bastogne sector and speaking directly to Bradley, he said, “Brad, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meatgrinder.” Turning his fist in a grinding motion, he continued, “[a]nd this time I’ve got hold of the handle.” He then replied to the inevitable questions with specific, well-rehearsed answers. “Patton would have liked to have seen the Germans drive some forty or fifty miles, then chop them off and destroy them, but he recognized that he would never muster support for that kind of daring.” Codman recorded, “Within an hour everything had been thrashed out—the divisions to be employed, objectives, new Army boundaries, the amount of our own front to be taken over by [Devers’s] Sixth Army Group, and other matters—and virtually all of them settled on General Patton’s terms.” Two of Patton’s three corps were to be extricated for a counterattack into the Ardennes, with Patch’s Seventh Army to take control of most of the Third Army sector in the Saar. Bradley later acknowledged that this was a “greatly matured Patton,” and that the Third Army staff had pulled off “a brilliant effort.” It was perhaps the most remarkable hour of Patton’s military career.
If ever there was justification for Eisenhower to have saved Patton’s career, it was now, and before they parted, Eisenhower remarked, “Funny thing, George, every time I get a new star I get attacked.” Patton shot back affably to remind his friend, “And every time you get attacked, Ike, I pull you out” (a reference to the debacle in Tunisia at Kasserine Pass, the time when Eisenhower attained his fourth star).
Those who visited First Army HQ, at Chaudfontaine, returned disturbed by the chaotic conditions and the lack of leadership they encountered. The previous command post at Spa had been so hastily abandoned in utter panic that top-secret maps were found still pinned to the walls, along with classified documents strewn on desks; even unopened Christmas presents had been left behind. After the war, tales abounded that Hodges played no role in the crucial first two days of the battle. What has been established, notes the official historian, is that “the First Army commander was incapacitated for at least two days and that [his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. William B.] Kean, in effect, operated as the commander of the First Army.” Kean later stated that Hodges had been “confined to his bed, barely conscious with viral pneumonia,” an account disputed by another member of the staff who reported that his commander “was sitting with his arms folded on his desk, his head in his arms.” Although the official historian records the various reasons for First Army’s failure to predict the German counteroffensive, Bedell Smith trod where official historians are not permitted: “First Army had a very bad staff,” he said, and “Hodges [was] the weakest commander we had.”
It was left to Gerow to exercise the initiative lacking from First Army by deploying his V Corps to confine the penetration by defending the key terrain of Elsenborn Ridge along the northern shoulder, in what became one of the outstanding defensive actions of the war.
Montgomery was greatly disturbed by the state of paralysis in First Army and by the seriousness of the situation in the north and conveyed his misgivings to the visiting Jock Whiteley, who maintained close contacts with 21st Army Group through his close friend Freddie de Guingand. Although occasionally one of the field marshal’s sternest critics, Whiteley nevertheless returned to SHAEF the night of December 19 convinced that Montgomery must be given immediate command of the northern sector before it was too late. Placing a telephone call to Montgomery, Whiteley said, “If Ike asked you to take over First Army, when could you do it?” Montgomery replied he could do so the following morning. Whiteley made it clear that nothing had yet been decided. Montgomery not only did not press the matter but exerted no pressure in favor of the idea.
Whiteley found an ally in Strong, who was receiving a steady stream of reports that led him to conclude independently that it was “absolutely essential to inform Bedell Smith about my growing doubts whether the Allies were matching up to the situation,” and his belief that Bradley did not appreciate the severity of First Army’s dilemma.
At about midnight the two generals awakened Bedell Smith and explained the urgency of an immediate decision. Smith, a grouch even under ideal conditions, exploded at the two staff officers, calling them “sons of bitches” and “limey bastards” and complaining, “Whenever there is any real trouble, the British do not appear to trust the Americans to handle it efficiently.” Their recommendation, said Smith, was “completely unacceptable.”
Although Strong and Whiteley were two of SHAEF’s most loyal and senior staff officers, Smith, still in a fury, exclaimed, ” ‘You are no longer acceptable to Eisenhower as staff officers!’ and told them to consider themselves fired.” Although both thought they were finished at SHAEF, Smith had actually taken their recommendations very seriously. Realizing that placing Montgomery in command in the north might well be a necessity, he telephoned Bradley to discuss a possible shift in command of First Army. Two versions of that conversation exist: Smith’s is that Bradley said that “it was the logical thing to do.” In A Soldier’s Story, however, Bradley recounts that Smith said, “Ike thinks it may be a good idea to turn over to Monty your two armies on the north and let him run that side of the Bulge from the 21st Army Group. It may save us a great deal of trouble.” According to Bradley, he questioned if such a changeover was at all necessary, claiming it was Smith who had then described it as the “logical thing to do.”34 In his later memoir, A General’s Life, Bradley lashed out at Smith and Whiteley, avowing to have been “completely dumbfounded—and shocked” by Smith’s phone call, which, he said, had “an Alice-in-Wonderland air.” Bradley’s conclusion was a marvel of obfuscation in which he said, “I made one of my biggest mistakes of the war . . . 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 lamely questioned the necessity of a changeover and “knuckled under.”
After Smith’s morning staff conference on December 20, he informed both Strong and Whiteley that he would put their proposal to Eisenhower as his own recommendation, and as an American. During Eisenhower’s morning staff conference, Ike telephoned Bradley and emphatically stated, “Where is the line you can hold the best and the cheapest? I don’t care how far back it is.” Bradley was in no position to supply Eisenhower with answers. What had convinced Smith that a changeover was vital was that 12th Army Group had lost communications with First Army for more than forty-eight hours. Moreover, Bradley had no idea whatsoever if Hodges had the situation under control, which—as has been conclusively shown—he did not during the crucial first days of the battle. The truth was that Bradley himself had nothing under control and was in no position to influence the outcome of the battle from his headquarters in Luxembourg. Smith called it “an open-and-shut case.”
At this point Smith raised the question of a reorganization of command in the Ardennes. Eisenhower accepted Smith’s recommendation to split the Ardennes front in two until the situation could be brought under control, with Montgomery to be given temporary operational command of all Allied forces (principally the U.S. First and Ninth Armies) in the northern half of the Bulge, and Bradley to command only the southern flank (Third Army). Later that day Smith apologized to Strong and Whiteley: “What made me really mad,” he said, “was that I knew you were right. But my American feelings got the better of me.”
Both Smith and Eisenhower would have preferred to leave Bradley in command. However, the reality of the situation that existed on the morning of December 20 dictated that the shift of command was necessary, and Eisenhower immediately communicated his decision to Bradley by telephone. During the confrontation between the two, Strong could hear the other end of the conversation. Bradley was loudly and angrily protesting, “By God, Ike, I cannot be responsible to the American people if you do this. I resign.” Eisenhower pointed out that it was he, not Bradley, who was responsible, then curtly noted, “Your resignation therefore means absolutely nothing.” Bradley’s protests continued vehemently until Eisenhower felt compelled to end the matter with, “Well, Brad, those are my orders.” Once off the phone, Bradley reacted with uncharacteristic cold fury, pacing back and forth while cursing Montgomery, startling even Chester Hansen, who was unused “to see[ing] Bradley like this.”
Moreover, had Bradley seized the initiative to visit Hodges during the first days of the battle and taken charge, as he should have, Eisenhower might well have decided against shifting command to Montgomery. In short, despite his complaints, Bradley needed to look no farther than himself to determine the reasons for Eisenhower’s decision. His intransigence in failing to move his headquarters away from Luxembourg on the grounds that it would create panic did not mean he had to remain there in isolation.
For the rest of his life Bradley bitterly (and erroneously) blamed Montgomery for inciting the order, and refused to admit that there was ample justification for SHAEF’s (and later Montgomery’s) loss of confidence in the exhausted, taciturn Hodges, who lacked Patton’s flair “at a time when we needed Pattonesque bravado.” It was a bad beginning to the attempt to reverse a battle brought about by the abysmal failure of Allied intelligence and Bradley’s uncharacteristic unwillingness to exercise leadership when it was most needed.
Excerpted from Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life by Carlo D’Este.
Copyright © 2002 by Carlo D’Este.
Reprinted with permission from Henry Holt and Company
CARLO D’ESTE, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and a distinguished military historian, is the author of numerous highly-praised books on World War II, including Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life and Patton: A Genius for War.