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Friday, December 25, 2015

Review: A Blood-Dimmed Tide by Gerald Astor

Gerald Astor has done a masterful job of weaving together personal recollections from the different sides in the Battle of the Bulge. I really enjoy history that mixes context with oral history of the participants. Stories of the rank-and-file are always interesting. In one such example, Lt. General Bradley came up to the line and was miffed when the soldier didn't accord the proper respect with a salute and told him so. The soldier replied that with all the German snipers around, any saluting made the recipient of the salute instant dog food. That, the general understood, and thanked him. I wonder if Patton would have reacted the same. Probably would have been another slapping incident. Of course, no sniper would have failed to see the pearl-handled revolvers. That positive aside, with all the different characters and such a close-up of individual events, it’s sometimes difficult to get the broader picture.

Few of the German commanders were optimistic about the success of Hitler's command for the breakout to take Antwerp through the Ardennes. Training had been poor and the units thrown together collected the rejects of other units. Hitler had ordered that each unit send their best troops, but most commanders, not being daft, sent their rejects and kept the best for themselves. Field Marshal Model was quoted as believing that the attack had barely a ten percent chance of success. Ironically, Skorzeny's idea of dressing Germans as American soldiers paid off occasionally. In one instance a bridge that was to be blown to hinder German tanks, failed to go up because some of the “Americans” involved in laying the charges sabotaged the effort.

Things weren't much better on the American side. The brass were wildly over optimistic in their assessment of German strength and generally bought the air corps reports that the German war machine had been decimated, something we now know to be a fairy tale. German war production was actually up, although they were having some fuel issues. The army did not trust civilians so they disregarded OSS information gleaned from the populace. In addition the troops on the line, as the Germans intelligence had reported, had become a 9-5 army, keeping watch only until about an hour after sunset, then hitting the sack, returning to their observation points an hour before dawn. This lead some German commanders to want to cancel the proposed artillery barrage that was to proceed the attack arguing it would simply alert the American troops. They were overruled. Often, troops that had hardly been in any fighting were ordered to destroy their weapons and surrender. Given the incident at Malmedy, they might have done better to keep fighting. At least then they might have sown a bit more confusion among the German ranks. (I was shocked at how many soldiers were injured when they tried to destroy their rifles by smashing them on rocks only to shoot themselves because they had failed to unload them.) Sometimes paperwork and bureaucracy hindered soldiers in the field. One airdrop of food and ammunition was ultimately canceled because the C-47s, flying out of the UK (another mistake) was canceled when fighter protection hadn’t been notified and the appropriate maps remained undelivered.

It’s a wonder things went as well as they did for the Germans, given the poor training of the “volunteers,” and their own lack of faith in the attempt. Certainly the overly optimistic allies helped. Montgomery was convinced, “the enemy was in a bad way,” and had neither the transport nor fuel to mount an attack. The American front line was know as a 9-5 army, staying on guard until only one hour past dark, then heading back to their huts for sleep, returning to their posts an hour before daybreak.

But after the salient attacks on Bastogne, the push back from the Third Army was tortuous for the infantry. The Germans had specifically infiltrated English-speaking troops in American uniforms into their front lines and they had captured a lot of American equipment so sometimes telling who was the enemy could be problematic. The ground was frozen making foxholes almost impossible to dig, dysentery was rampant, and outfits shifted from place to place making the soldiers wonder just where they were and having no understanding for the total picture. “With all of our constant confusion, I couldn’t see how we were winning and the Germans were retreating. I wasn’t killing anybody. I didn’t see any Germans and their only manifestation was in their shells and machine guns.” Many were frustrated and the inevitable atrocities occurred. “They had nothing to look forward to—except a wound that would evacuate them or a coffin . . . . fighting mad after wading through waist-high snowdrifts for twelve hours to get to Herresbach. Some of our boys ran wild, shooting everything that moved in the town. The Krauts used up all their ammo shooting at our guys, then came out yelling, ‘Kamerad!’ Our troopers would reply with ‘Kamerad, hell!’ and a burst from a tommy gun.” Patton even remarked in his diary that he hoped no one would find out.

In the end, it’s no spoiler that the attempted German breakout was doomed to failure as the Allies’ overwhelming air superiority and materiel determined the outcome as did Hitler’s failure to provide support for the effort once underway. Probably not the best book to read for an overall strategic view of the battle, but excellent for detailed personal accounts.

By the way, Astor quotes Charles MacDonald, author of Company Commander, another excellent memoir of WWII that I have reviewed. (
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