Thursday 27 October 2016

Books: Hitler's final throw of the dice

History: Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble, Antony Beevor, Viking, hdbk, 480 pages, €37.50

Published 12/07/2015 | 02:30

Savagery of war: A dead German soldier covered in snow on the road to the town of La Roche in Ardennes
Savagery of war: A dead German soldier covered in snow on the road to the town of La Roche in Ardennes
Ardennes 1944

Nicholas Shakespeare is mesmerised by a gripping account of the bloody battlefields of the Ardennes

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Shortly after Nazi tanks thundered into Paris in June 1940, like "steel pachyderms let loose from the zoos of hell", a former British military attaché in Belgium told the joint intelligence staffs: "Even the Germans say that if they entered France at 60km an hour, they expect to leave at twice the speed." By the end of August 1944, Paris had been liberated, and the Wehrmacht was indeed in hectic flight, having lost 156,726 men on the Western Front.

It was in these circumstances, on September 16, that Hitler, still shaken by the July 20 attempt on his life and bedridden with jaundice, had a powerful vision. He communicated it to an astonished entourage. A German general wrote in his diary: "Decision by the Führer, counter-attack from the Ardennes, objective Antwerp." Two panzer armies, assisted by 1,500 fighter planes, would split apart the western Allies to create "a new Dunkirk".

Hitler had selected the Ardennes because it was thinly held by American troops - General Bradley had allowed for only four divisions. Plus, Hitler hoped to repeat the German army's surprise dash through the pine forests in 1940 (as well as in 1914 and 1870). Obsessed by secrecy, he ordered total radio silence and the execution of anyone leaking details. Privately, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model calculated the operation "had not more than a 10pc chance of success", but "it was the last remaining chance".

Just tell the story. This is the instruction of the eminent military historian Hew Strachan. Once again, Antony Beevor obeys it to the letter. While he doesn't have quite the same richness of archival material to draw on as in his ground-breaking Stalingrad, under Beevor's brisk control the story of Hitler's final gamble is another example of the kind of action-packed, densely informed narrative that has proved such a formidable model.

When the Germans broke through at zero hour - 5.30am on December 16 - no one expected them. Only the day before, newly promoted Field Marshal Montgomery had barked that German shortages "precluded any offensive action". Hearing loud explosions, an American lieutenant wrote in his diary "must be a dream".

It was a while before senior officers understood a ferocious counter-attack was under way, one that would bring "the terrifying brutality of the Eastern Front to the west". Outmanoeuvred, General Bradley stared at the situation map through his bifocals in fascinated horror: "Where in hell has this son of a bitch gotten all his strength?"

Beevor relishes exposing the rivalry between furious Allied generals, their reputations at stake. The "rhinoceros-hided" Montgomery had given Hitler breathing space to organise his armies. Instead of clearing and consolidating Antwerp, Montgomery had agitated to be awarded single command for a "dagger-thrust" at the heart of Germany ("butter-knife thrust" more like, sneered Bradley). Yet it was Montgomery's insufferable egotism that led Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to label him "a psychopath", and General Patton to call him "a tired little fart".

Beevor even wonders whether Montgomery didn't suffer "from what today would be called high-functioning Asperger syndrome". At the same time, he defends the British commander from Bradley's destructive sniping. Immobilised with resentment at having his 12th Army Group transferred to Montgomery, Bradley "completely… failed to understand what was really happening". None the less, it was in large measure Montgomery's fault that these rivalries dictated Allied strategy, leading to an American triumph and, for the British, political defeat - in the Anglophobia that rampaged through America, and which Beevor ascribes to Eisenhower's anger, 11 years later when he was that country's president, at Britain's perfidy during the Suez crisis.

A confused chain of command was not the Allies' only problem. The Germans dispatched a commando unit of fake American soldiers who rode around in stolen Jeeps, with orders, apparently, to penetrate Paris and capture Eisenhower. The rumours turned the Americans "into victims of their own nightmare fantasies". At roadblocks, military police challenged every vehicle, devising bizarre questions to ascertain whether officers were genuine. Asked who won the World Series in 1940, British actor David Niven, seconded to the American Ninth Army, replied: "I haven't the faintest idea. But I do know that I made a picture with Ginger Rogers in 1938." Even General Bradley was detained, despite having given the correct answer for the capital of Illinois.

With no less authority, Beevor strides out of the officers' mess into the combat zone. Constant rain and fog meant that soldiers lay shivering in foxholes, in uniforms drenched by mud and wet snow. Trench foot and malnourishment were widespread. So was combat exhaustion, accounting for 8,000 cases of "neuropsychiatric breakdown" among American forces (but none among the Germans, who refused to recognise the condition). A rare joke circulated. After five days in the forest, you talked to the trees; on the sixth, you started getting answers back. Patton summoned an army chaplain to pray for the freezing drizzle to stop and, when it did, decorated him with the Bronze Star. Waking up to a bright Christmas Day, Patton wrote in his diary: "Lovely weather for killing Germans."

The savagery on both sides was unprecedented and dehumanising. An American battalion commander told his men that "the German is a breed of vicious animal which… must be exterminated", while a German sniper company was taught that every shot must kill a "British swine".

The casual massacre by Joachim Peiper's panzer troops of 84 American prisoners at Malmédy set off a chain reaction, with the 11th Armoured Division taking its revenge on 60 captured Germans. "I hope we can conceal this," Patton wrote in his diary. Beevor is right to be shocked that a number of generals, from Bradley down, openly approved, and that there survive so few details in the archives or in American accounts.

A rare witness to the shooting of German PoWs was the underrated novelist William Wharton, who served in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, alongside writers such as Hemingway (called "Henningway" in the Nazi press) and JD Salinger. Interestingly, it was as a novelist that Beevor launched his own distinguished career; The Faustian Pact (1983) saw Beevor learning the ropes of his narrative technique, and exploring his aptitude for invention ("A face like a grenade range; that was how they described a girl with a rough complexion"; "Susie sat curled up in an armchair flicking through a copy of Vogue"). Ardennes 1944, by contrast, plunges us straight in at ground level, with short, unpretentious sentences - and few heroines (its unassuageably male world indexes a mere four women). Impatient of frills, the author rarely lingers on any one scene or character. A single sentence suffices ("Peiper was 29 years old and good looking with his brown hair slicked back"). Commendably unconcerned to be "a writer", Beevor is, rather, a field marshal of facts, organising his armies of chaotic and swift-moving events, deploying these so that the reader will not be confused, and reaching a punchy conclusion not deformed by analysis.

The story of Hitler's last gamble ended with the flattening of whole villages. Swallows returning the following spring were disoriented. To this day, Beevor tells us, local landowners can't sell their timber "because of the shards of metal buried deep in the massive conifers".

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