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Book Review: Death on a Distant Frontier (Charles Whiting) : World War II

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Death on a Distant Frontier, by Charles Whiting, Sarpedon, New York, 1996, $21.95.

In September 1944, the smell of impending Allied victory was in the air in northwest Europe. The German army in France had been shattered, and its survivors were streaming back to the Reich. The Germans were not yet beaten, but it was clear that Hitler's empire was collapsing.

Behind the retreating Germans were 2,500 men of the elite British Special Air Service (SAS). Dropped into Europe the previous June to rally the French Maquis, SAS commandos were busy sabotaging German lines and smoothing the path for the American armies of Generals Courtney Hodges, George S. Patton, Jr., and Alexander Patch, which were advancing toward the Siegfried Line.

The SAS troops were in a desperate situation, fighting both the Germans and their own French assistants, who betrayed them time and again. Many of the SAS men were captured and murdered.

On the afternoon of September 11, 1944, men of the U.S. 5th Armored Division first penetrated the Siegfried Line. The line had long since been abandoned. The guns had vanished, the dust was thick on the floors of the concrete bunkers, the barbed-wire entanglements were covered with weeds, and a local farmer had built a chicken coop outside one of the pillboxes. To the GIs of the 5th Armored it seemed as if the attack on the Westwall would be a walkover.

In November 1944, units of Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers' Sixth Army Group reached the Rhine, and patrols were sent across. They reported that the bunkers of the Siegfried Line were unmanned, and there was no sign of the enemy. The Rhine was ripe for the taking. But General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander, who disliked Devers and would have fired him if he could, ordered him to cease immediately all planning to cross the Rhine in corps strength. Devers protested the decision but was overruled. He wrote in his diary, "I feel as if I don't belong to the same team."

It would be four long months–during which bitter struggles raged in the Ardennes and the Hürtgen Forest–before the famed impromptu crossing of the Rhine at Remagen. The combination of the Third and Seventh armies, aided by the SAS, had the potential to bring the war in the West to a successful conclusion in the autumn of 1944, says Charles Whiting in Death on a Distant Frontier. But a great opportunity was lost because of Eisenhower's rigid adherence to his broad-front strategy.

According to the author, the turning point in Germany's favor came during an 11-week period between September and November 1944, when the Allied strategy failed. The Germans refortified the Westwall, and the Americans were stopped dead. The war would drag on for another seven months–during which time two-thirds of all the Allied casualties in northwest Europe would be incurred–and the rapidly advancing Soviet armies would change the face of Europe.

With a sure grasp of all aspects of modern warfare, informed analysis and a fast-paced narrative style, Whiting has written a solidly convincing examination of the failure of the broad-front strategy in autumn 1944 that brought about the squandering of so many Allied lives and so much time. Death on a Distant Frontier is extensively documented and contains much new detail. He writes with equal facility about both the intricacies of the Allied command structure and the campaigns in the field. He is a sound military historian whose books are always fresh and hard-hitting.

Along with the broad-front strategy, the author emphasizes, the conduct of the war in the autumn of 1944 was determined by the strong bond between Eisenhower, General Omar N. Bradley, and Eisenhower's three army commanders, which was based on their shared alma mater. Each of them wanted to ensure that an American general won the war in the West.

The Americans refused to give support to General Bernard Law Montgomery–
"that little Limey fart"–up in the north, who was best placed to achieve a decisive breakthrough into Germany. They also competed against each other. Devers, an outsider, was halted, and the glory of being the first American army to cross the Rhine would go to insider Hodges' First Army. On March 26, 1945, Devers' Seventh Army (led by "Sandy" Patch), America's "Forgotten Army," became the last to cross.

Why did Eisenhower order Devers to stand fast in November 1944, when the latter assured him that his divisions would meet with little resistance across the Rhine? We do not know, says Whiting, because that meeting was not recorded. In his memoirs, Crusade in Europe, Eisenhower referred only to the orders he gave Devers, and Bradley did not mention it at all. We only know that the meeting took place at all from Devers' diary, and one kept by an aide to Bradley, though he gives no details of what transpired. It appears, Whiting concludes, that Eisenhower and Bradley did not want the public to know after the war that the Rhine could have been crossed in 1944.

Three decades after the event, General Garrison Davidson, the Seventh Army's chief engineer, wrote: "Perhaps success would have eliminated any possibility of the Battle of the Bulge. Forty thousand casualties there could have been avoided and the war shortened by a number of months."

Death on a Distant Frontier makes a provocative and stimulating addition to the study of World War II.

Michael D. Hull







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