On the anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, Jim DeFelice, the author of “Omar Bradley: General at War,” spoke to Human Events about the battle, Bradley’s role.
“The battle actually began very early on the morning of December 16, 1944,” DeFelice he said. “It started as a lot of battles do with an artillery barrage in the Ardennes section of Belgium.
The basic plan of the German attack was to exploit a thinning in the American lines and drive to the Dutch port of Antwerp. By holding a corridor to the Atlantic, the Germans would have roughly 250,000 British and American troops trapped between the corridor to the south and the German homeland defenses to the northeast.
Hitler recognized the war was lost, so the 250,000 captured troops would be hostages he would use to coerce the Allies to the peace table for a resolution short of the unconditional surrender the Allies demanded.
DeFelice said, usually, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, who commanded the 12th Army Group and was in-charge of the southern half of the front, held an early morning staff meeting, but on the morning of December 16, 1944, he skipped the meeting and went to Paris, instead. “There, he had to meet Eisenhower and other top generals.” Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater of Operations.
One of the topics at the meeting was the how the generals were going to deal the lack of replacements soldiers, he said. “There really was a concern that they did not have enough replacements to continue fighting the war.”
The replacements were not coming for two reasons, he said. First, as the war in Europe was winding down, the Americans were bulking up for the war in the Pacific and the final assault on Japan.
Second, there was a political decision in Washington that capped the number of casualties at a number they thought the American people could absorb, he said.
“They were judging what will the country put up with,” he said.
“We tend to look back on World War II and say: ‘Well, everyone was in favor of the war and it was a great effort and we are all in this together, but actually, when you go back, and look at the history of the times, it is a little more complicated than that,” he said.
Bradley arrives in Paris about midday, he said. “Fairly soon after his arrival, he starts to get reports that there is something going on over in the Ardennes.”
At first, Bradley assumed the Germans were launching spoiling attacks to blunt different Allied offensives, which he had expected, he said. Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr., was driving his Third Army into Germany Saarland and Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges’ First Army was attacking to the north into Germany’s Hurtgen Forest. “The spoiling attacks were a common German tactic and their way to getting the Americans to ‘call off the dogs.’”
By the afternoon, Bradley realizes that this is not a spoiling attack, he said.
The estimates are that there was somewhere over 1,500 artillery pieces that that started firing,” he said. “The Americans, of course, thought the Germans were just testing their guns.”
DeFelice said, “Certainly within a few hours, as the Germans started rushing over the line, and when the Americans were really, literally, overrun, run through, run by and run over—the Americans started to realize they had a problem,” he said. It was a return to Blitzkrieg, or the Lightning War, just without the air cover that the Germans once enjoyed.
“The Germans picked a great area to surprise the Americans in. They hit an area, where they had just rotated in two divisions that had recently been taking off the line, and they had been shredded up a little further north,” he said.
One of the great intelligence failures of the war was that the failure of the allies to detect the massive shift of armor units across from the Russian theater west to mass in force for the thrust through the Ardennes to Antwerp.
“In the initial push, the Germans started with 600 tanks,” the Westchester County, N.Y.-based author said.
“Simply to have so many tanks—even if they were trucks, to have so many in one place at one time—and for the Americans to miss it, is quite stunning,” he said.
“Clearly, they thought that if there would be an offensive, it would be very small, and they clearly thought that the German units that were in the area were smaller than they turned out to be,” he said.
“It is a massive, massive attack. In the initial assault, there were 200,000 Germans,” he said.
“At one point, Bradley says to Lt. Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff: ‘I was wanting and expecting a spoiling attack, but this is no what I wanted,’” he said.
DeFelice said he dismisses much of Eisenhower’s account of the Battle of the Bulge in his memoirs “Crusade,” where he claims that Bradley and he assumed that the Germans would make a push west to the sea and that Bradley’s calculations convinced Ike that the Germans did not have the men or supplies or equipment to succeed—and that if the Germans tried they would be cut off and welcomed as it would lead to an earlier it to the war.
“These are the sort of statements that make memoirs so generally unreliable,” he said.
“It is a whitewash,” he said. “Forget about revisionism, it is a re-writing of history. Ironically, Bradley’s memoirs certainly compared to ‘Crusade,’ turns out to be a model of truth, justice and the American Way.” Bradley’s memoirs were titled “A Soldier’s Story.”
As the battle unfolded, Eisenhower’s assessment of the situation is much direr than Bradley’s, he said.
Ike recognized that the Germans were not just going to move the front back to the Meuse River, but that they intended to go beyond the river and deep into the Allied lines, he said.
Bradley was ordered by Ike to evacuate his headquarters, which at one point during the battle was shelled, but he refused. “It is one of the few times in the war that I can find when Bradley actually takes politics into consideration, because he reasoned that his retreat would have a negative effect on the way Americans were perceived.”
When Bradley returns to his headquarters in Luxembourg, he accepts that it is a dangerous situation, he said. “But, he also realizes very soon it is a big opportunity.”
For the previous two months, Bradley’s forces had been stalled at the German border as resistance stiffened, and the German defenses were much better that the Americans had anticipated, he said.
“All of a sudden, the Germans had decided to make themselves vulnerable by coming out from behind those defenses,” he said. With this insight, the 12th Army Group commander determines to first, hold the line, and then exploit the exposed German Army.
The major British and American commanders met at Verdun December 19 to plan their response. By this time, Bradley proposed that Hodges from the north and Patton from the south should meet up and pinch off the German thrust, he said.
Patton’s race across France to the north is one of the great accomplishments of the war, and it is during this time that Patton has his greatest success, he said.
By Christmas Day and the day after, the paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division, who had been holding out at Bastogne, a critical crossroads vital to the German advance, were relieved by Patton, he said. Then, the skies, which were so cloudy they neutralized the Allied air superiority, cleared up allowing the Air Force to both provide logistics and to join the fight.
The German advance was halting by the end of December, he said. “Surprising, the battle actually continues for several weeks afterwards and there are more Americans killed after Christmas, than before.” The battle lines did not return to the December 15 position until January 25, 1945.
“It is impossible to overestimate the ferocity of the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge,” he said.
“Pound-for-pound, the German Army was the best army in the world,” he said.
“I am not criticizing the American Army, which by that time was very good as well,” he said.
The Germans lost roughly 100,000 men compared to the Americans, who lost roughly 80,000 men, he said. “It is a huge amount of people killed, wounded or captured.”
DeFelice said the bottom line for the Germans was that they gambled their reserve and lost. Without all they had lost in the battle, the Germans were unable to resist the Allies, who after taking time to regroup pressed toward the May 8, 1945 German surrender.
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