Author Stephen Ambrose tells the story of the American foot soldier’s experience in Europe.
By Michael D. Hull
One chilly morning in November 1944, Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, commander of the British XXX Corps, climbed into a jeep and was driven to the front to “smell this new American battlefield.” The untested U.S. 84th Infantry Division had been placed under his command for the attack on Geilenkirchen, north of Aachen, on the Dutch-German border. When he reached the division area, Horrocks was halted abruptly by an American sentry, who leaped out from behind a tree, pointed his rifle menacingly at the general’s stomach and shouted, “Who the hell are you?”
Horrocks got out of the jeep gingerly and replied, “I am a Britisher–and what’s more, your division has just been placed under my command.”
The GI looked at him incredulously and asked his rank.
“A three-star general,” answered Horrocks.
“Holy Moses!” said the soldier. “We don’t see many of them up here.”
Horrocks reported later that he was “able to meet and chat to a number of these fine-looking young soldiers.” And he soon discovered a front-line problem that reminded him all too much of his grim World War I experiences in the trenches.
“It soon became obvious that, with the exception of the U.S. paratroop divisions, whose commanders literally lived with their forward troops (and, of course, with the exception of Patton), the normal U.S. corps and divisional commanders rarely, if ever, visited their forward troops,” recalled Horrocks. “This was something I had to put right without delay, because of the appalling wintry conditions which the 84th were likely to meet in this their first experience of battle, opposed by experienced, battle-hardened German troops.”
Horrocks ordered the 43rd Wessex Division, the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, and artillery and specialized tank units to support the Americans. He also ensured that the U.S. troops received hot food and dry socks, in order to boost morale.
The 84th Division secured its objectives in the Battle of Geilenkirchen, one of the hardest fought actions at the battalion, company and platoon level in the European theater. General Horrocks said he was “filled with admiration for the extreme gallantry displayed by the raw GIs.”
The problem of commanders being out of touch with their troops was becoming endemic throughout the U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), says Stephen Ambrose in Citizen Soldiers (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997, $27.50), his compelling foxhole-level history of the soldiers’ war from Normandy to the German surrender. Not even battalion commanders were going to the front. It was humiliating, Ambrose says, that a British general had to order American staff officers and their commanding officers to go check on their soldiers. The American officers’ absence was costly, for tens of thousands of young Americans and Germans died that November in battles–most notably in the Hürtgen Forest–that did little to hasten the end of the war and should have been avoided.
The hardships endured by American troops in the hedgerows and foxholes of northwest Europe–and the courage, resilience and adaptability with which they faced them–are chronicled vividly in this masterpiece of historical narrative. It is a stunning account–affectionate, yet honest–of ordinary men learning to beat a stubborn, well-trained foe at his own game. From Omaha Beach to St. Lô, and from Bastogne to Cologne, they marched, shivered, fought, groused, bled, died and triumphed magnificently.
One of the most articulate and informed historians writing today, Stephen Ambrose has distilled in brilliant clarity the essence of the American character that helped to preserve global freedom. Without doubt, his book will enthrall every veteran, scholar and general reader.
When the GIs sailed for Europe, as the author points out, they were going not as conquerors but as liberators. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme Allied commander, told them their mission in his June 6, 1944, order of the day: “The destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
The U.S. troops accomplished their mission. And, in the process, they helped to liberate the peoples of France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg and the Germans living west of the Elbe River.
In Normandy in July 1944, German Private Walter Zittats was guarding some American prisoners, one of whom spoke German. Zittats asked him, “Why are you making war against us?” The GI answered, “We are fighting to free you from the fantastic idea that you are a master race.”
In June 1945, Eisenhower told his staff: “The success of this occupation can only be judged 50 years from now. If the Germans at that time have a stable, prosperous democracy, then we shall have succeeded.” That mission was also accomplished.
Assessing the motivation of the GIs in the ETO, Ambrose concludes that
patriotism had little, if anything, to do with it. The GIs fought the enemy because they had to. What held them together was not country and flag but unit cohesion,
though not of the regimental “family” type that has strengthened the British army for several centuries.
The GIs, says the author, were children of democracy who knew the difference between right and wrong. They fought and won because they were determined not to live in a world where wrong prevailed.
Gripping, authentic and powerful, this book leads the reader close to the terror and exhilaration of combat, the cold and hunger of the foxholes, and the intense and solitary world of the men with the M-1 rifles, Browning Automatic Rifles and mortars. While Ambrose provides a clear interpretation of the strategic aspects, this book is primarily a record of the tactical–and human–war in Europe.
The author, who has been interviewing former GIs for four decades, allows many of them to tell their stories in their own words. There was no typical GI among the millions who soldiered in northwest Europe, Ambrose says, but perhaps Staff Sgt. Bruce Egger of G Company of the 328th Regiment, 26th Infantry (“Yankee”) Division, was representative. A native of central Idaho and a student at Kansas State University, Egger served almost continuously on the line and never missed a day of duty. He had some close calls. Once, his life was saved when a piece of shrapnel was deflected by a copy of the New Testament in his field jacket’s breast pocket. Egger, who was never wounded in the war, later worked in the Forest Service for 29 years.
“We were miserable and cold and exhausted most of the time, and we were all scared to death,” recalled Egger. “But we were young and strong then, possessed of the marvelous resilience of youth, and for all the misery and fear, and the hating every moment of it, the war was a great, if always terrifying, adventure. Not a man among us would want to go through it again, but we are all proud of having been so severely tested and found adequate.
“The only regret is for those of our friends who never returned.”
Stephen Ambrose is also the author of the best sellers Undaunted Courage and D-Day, as well as biographies of Eisenhower and President Richard M. Nixon. He is the founder of the Eisenhower Center and president of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans.