Below Antony Beevor tells us more about the generals involved in the famous battle to give us a taste of what to expect in his new book.
The Ardennes and the Battle of the Generals
Hitler’s offensive in the Ardennes which began on 16 December 1944 was intended to split the Allies. His two panzer armies were to cross the River Meuse and head for Antwerp to cut off the Canadians and the British. He dreamed of pushing the Canadians and perhaps even the British out of the war by forcing another Dunkirk evacuation. Encouraged by Josef Goebbels, who reminded him of the way the death of the Tsarina had saved Frederick the Great’s Prussia at the end of the Seven Years War, Hitler clung to the idea that history would repeat itself, and the unholy alliance between the western capitalists and Stalin’s Soviet Union would fall apart.
There were indeed tensions in the Allied camp, but not of the sort he imagined. The British press had started to clamour for the promotion of Field Marshal Montgomery to command all the ground troops on the western front. This demand was totally unrealistic when British strength was weakening while the United States provided the overwhelming bulk of the troops and supplies. Not surprisingly it provoked a good deal of anger among American senior officers. It was seen as an insult to the supreme commander, General Eisenhower, and especially to General Omar Bradley, the commander of the 12th Army Group.
Montgomery felt the command of land forces was his by right. He suffered from an armoured complacency and could not imagine how others might react to his excessively self-assured manner. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, General Bedell Smith, later found it ironic that ‘Montgomery for a long time thought Bradley was very fond of him; he didn’t know he couldn’t stand him.’ The dislike in fact went much deeper. Bradley saw Montgomery ‘as the personal inspiration of all his troubles’, an American staff officer remarked. ‘He had long since acquired a distaste for the little man with the beret and the bark.’
When in mid-September the Allies launched Operation Market Garden, the attempt to jump the Rhine by seizing the bridge at Arnhem and all the others leading to it, Montgomery was obsessed by the idea of being the first across. He wanted Eisenhower to give him the bulk of the supplies and command over the Ninth and the First US Armies. He expected General George Patton’s Third Army to be halted to allow him full priority on fuel deliveries, and was most upset when he found that Bradley had quietly allowed him to keep advancing.
Time and again Montgomery snubbed Eisenhower by refusing to come to important conferences, and by telling him that the only reason the Allied armies were bogged down that autumn was because his recommendations had not been followed. American generals, especially Bradley and Patton, were furious that Eisenhower was far too patient with his troublesome subordinate.
The German onslaught in the Ardennes on 16 December caught Bradley totally unawares. He felt appalled and humiliated when Eisenhower gave Montgomery command over the First and Ninth Armies, because Bradley’s headquarters in Luxembourg to the south were cut off by the enemy advance. For most of the battle, Bradley bunkered down in his headquarters, fulminating against Montgomery and criticizing his handling of the battle. In fact Montgomery displayed great pragmatism, and refused to be rushed by American generals who wanted to counter-attack too soon. They were too eager to obtain a rapid victory to cover up the way they had been taken by surprise.
Unfortunately, the British press again started clamouring for Montgomery to command all ground forces. And Montgomery, claiming that he wanted to emphasize his support for Eisenhower, had a disastrous press conference on 8 January. He could not stop himself from implying that he had won the whole battle. Not surprisingly, the Americans were outraged. Eisenhower, even at the end of his life, was still bitter. ‘He’s a psychopath, don’t forget that,’ Eisenhower exploded. ‘He is such an egocentric . . . He has never made a mistake in his life.’ British influence had already been dwindling as Churchill had feared, but Montgomery’s compulsive boasting created such resentment that it contributed to Britain losing all influence in Allied councils.
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