Monday, June 29, 2015

Groove Book Report: Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble - Anthony Beevor, Penguin Random House

Could this be the best critique of Hitler's last stand crackpot scheme to defend the Empire of the Third Reich?

The events leading up to Victory in Europe, May 1945, is one that's so clearly well known that it's t forget that – at the time – most Europeans were most people expected the war to finish much sooner than it really did. the Third Reich looked defeated by mid-1944 and in the east, the Russians were steamrolling their way to Baltics, Poland and Hungary at breakneck pace. Over in the west, the American and British armies lost no time clearing France and Belgium within only a few months of their Normandy landing.  Over by Xmas it was proposed.  Yeah.  Nah!

In-fighting and a certain level of incompetent leadership bubbled through the Allies, slowing the advance.  Hitler's army was decimated and hopelessly outnumbered but exceptionally stubborn, they were not giving in.  The Allies' insistence on unconditional surrender and the US bravado claiming Germany would become an agrarian wasteland further fueled Nazi propagandists.  It encouraged the most despicable patriotism, with the enlistment of an entire underage army of boys to defend the Fatherland.  they were dragged away from their mother's bosom to 'man' anti-tank guns and take up arms against the invaders.  Some of the most atrocious acts of cowardly genocide against Jews and other 'detainees' in the camps occurred in this time, partially in pure retaliation.

What might have happened, had Hitler decided to pour his remaining forces into the defense of the 'rump' of Germany? We'll never know.   Because he was now playing a final card: to launch an offensive into the Ardennes by chucking absolutely everything into a quick assault through the forest of Southern Belgium, and a grab-back of Antwerp and the division of the Allies.  It should force the English into a second Dunkirk style retreat. There was hope that the known backbiting between Bradley and Montgomery et al would morph into something bigger and Germany to claw back victory from the jaws of defeat.  Hitler's hero, Frederick the Great, after all had extracted Prussia from the threat of annihilation in the Seven Years War, in exactly the same way.  He was convinced it could work for him, too.

Yeah.  Nah.  Again.  Really?  Nobody outside the bunker believed that this nutty scheme would work.  Germany's half-starved army of old men and untrained boys and conscripts were in no position to argue and no position to win.  Duly, they were bogged down near Dinant, miles from Antwerp.  Never a real threat. Still Allies were given a mighty fright! Beevor notes that it was odd that they had left themselves so unprotected in the Ardennes, given that the Prussian army in 1870 and the German army in 1914 and 1940 had invaded France from precisely this point.

Beevor's account is just wonderful - "as good on the rows behind the front lines as he is on the battles themselves", wrote the Guardian and I'll have to agree.  He starts with the grating friction between those two preening, jealous generals, Generals Montgomery and Omar Bradley, the USA's commander of Allied forces to the South.  He's especially damaging of  Monty making him out a  drama queen with a loose mouth, and a thorn in the side of the equally bombastic  Churchill a good deal of trouble. Montgomery's floundering attempts to assert Britain's efforts clearly 'p'ed off the Yanks.  Beevor maintains the legacy with the American's coldness towards Britain when the Suez crisis came about ten years later.

Ten days, this was an offensive resulted in many unnecessary deaths, but otherwise achieved nothing. By Christmas Day 1945, the great gamble was over. The only real result, Beevor notes, was to completely drain Germany's Eastern front of all defenses and expose it to the devastation of the the Red Army's steamroller. The sole beneficiary of Hitler's last gamble was Stalin, who was able to push further and faster into Eastern Europe and advance the process of communist take over that set up the Cold War for ever forth with.  This at once a 'Boy's Own" account of thrilling and daring, a wargamer's bible, for arguments and dice role patriotism and a god accessible read for those like myself, who have a passing history in military history.

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