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If you are of a certain age, the most you would probably know about the 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes would have come from the film Battle of the Bulge. It was a good movie, but when you read Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, you will understand how “once over lightly” the film was, with regards the history of the battle.
The Allied forces, having liberated France, were pushing on a very wide front toward the Ruhr and the German heartland. Their main focus was from the North with the British and Canadian armies and from the south with the American Armies. At the centre, in Belgium’s deeply wooden Ardennes, the line was being lightly held by American troops, largely being rested from other areas. There was a major breakdown in Allied intelligence that had failed to identify the build-up of two panzer armies designed to break through the American lines, drive to the Meuse, split the American and British/Canadian armies and force another Dunkirk.
The attack was a major surprise to the Allies just before Christmas, with bad weather keeping the overwhelming Allied airpower on the ground and troops frozen in their foxholes as the German tanks rolled over them. Despite early and serious setbacks, American troops managed to hold at crucial points, most famously at Bastogne. Despite the often sour relationships between American and British generals, very often created by Field Marshall Montgomery, the allies very quickly developed a plan, moved whole armies toward the battle; the weather cleared, the allied planes flew and the Germans ran out of petrol. There is no doubt that the Battle of the Ardennes was won by the Americans, as opposed to the combined allied armies. The Germans lost hundreds of thousands of troops and it was the last time that any real threat was mounted in the west against the allied armies.
Above is the short version of what happened but Antony Beevor’s book has much more to it than that. He has a great reputation for uncovering the unvarnished detail of all sides of major second world war battles, and Ardennes 1944 is another example. The book begins by shaping the context with an account of the breakout from the Normandy beachheads, the drive across France and the liberation of Paris. The political situation between the various forces is carefully explained and Beevor does not hold back in his criticisms of various key figures, particularly Montgomery, whose ego at times could have caused catastrophe if it had not been blunted by the ever diplomatic Eisenhower.
The fine detail of analysis of the actual battle, or battles, during the winter days through Christmas and into the New Year is where this book stands out. Within the Ardennes forest there are many small villages and almost every one became a scene of fierce fighting, many atrocities to soldiers of both sides and particularly against the villagers. The very clear maps within the book greatly help in overcoming the literal fog of this battle.
Some years ago I travelled by train from Dusseldorf in Germany to Paris, through the Ardennes. I remember at the time remarking on the many small villages that we passed. It was summer, but the impression was one of darkness and ruggedness. All troop movements in 1944 would have been largely restricted to narrow roads, causing attack lines to be strung out and difficult to manoeuvre. Snow, sleet and mud did not help either side. Beevor records and explains; he has researched letters and records of individuals fighting on both sides as well as official sources. There are many personal touches.The reality and horror of war is made very plain.
Hollywood could well take this book and make even a better film of the Battle of the Bulge.
Review by Lincoln Gould
by Antony Beevor
Published by Penguin Viking