Anyone who reads that title and knows anything about the ETO in 1944-45 is probably laughing out loud by now.
General Courtney Hodges? A genius for war? Are you kidding?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Everyone knows the established narrative of the 1944 campaign. D-Day? That was a tough one. The campaign in Normandy up to St. Lô? REAL tough. A slog, in fact, as a highly mechanized U.S. Army had to grind its way thought the hedgerow (bocage) country. Tens of thousands of U.S. casualties. General Eisenhower fielding questions from Washington (General George C. Marshall, channeling a feisty President Roosevelt, channeling an every feistier American media and public opinion) about why all this was taking so long. And then, General Omar Bradley’s master stroke: Operation Cobra, a carpet bombing attack against a small sector of the line from Périers to St. Lô. It was a carefully prepared breakthrough designed to vaporize that sector of the German line and allow the U.S. Army to do what it did best, find a seam and eat up the miles–hundreds of them.
As it was planned, so it went. The B-24s obliterated the single defending German division in the sector, Panzer Lehr. The U.S. Army managed to concentrate an entire corps in the breakthrough sector, the VII under General “Lightnin’ Joe” Collins. It smashed though the German line and opened a hole for a huge mobile force: 1st Infantry Division, 2nd Armored Division, and 3rd Armored Division, driving towards Coutances. At this point, VIII Corps to the right (under General Troy Middleton) joined in, driving south and trapping German forces at Roncey. With a huge U.S. force in motion, a command shuffle switch took place. Bradley moved upstairs to command an all-US 12th Army Group; General Courtney Hodges took over 1st Army, and a new army came into existence to his right, the 3rd, under General George Patton.
The established narrative of the campaign at this point is one of “pursuit.” Patton driving deep–heading simultaneously west into Brittany and east towards the German border, commanding an army heading in two directions at once and spread out over 600 miles of terrain. What a story!
Hurrah for Patton! But let’s dig a little deeper. Although Patton was rolling free, charging in all directions at once, Hodges remained in direct contact with the defending German 7th Army. There was tough fighting for 1st Army from the start. U.S. tactical air, usually the deus ex machina of this campaign, an irresistible weapon that came down on the Wehrmacht like the hammer of the gods, also tore up friendly formations more than anyone is usually prepared to admit, even to this day.
Certainly, U.S. forces had achieved a temporary breakthrough in Cobra, and 3rd Army was pouring through the gap. If you were a soldier in 1st Army, however, you might well have asked where your breakthrough was. The Germans had been able to withdraw and form a new defensive position based on the crossroads town of Vire. While their commander, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, thought that the position was “untenable” and was already planning a retreat, the Germans fought a desperate delaying action around Vire with no fewer than six divisions.
Six divisions! An entire German army, in other words. They’d been blooded, sure, but they were still in the field. When Hodges looked at that situation map, all he could see in front of him was a grueling advance against determined resistance, one defended town and river line after another. There were casualties–heavy and predictable ones–the entire way. If it was a pursuit, it was a low-speed chase, and it would essentially stay that way until the end of the war.
Compared to all those books on Patton, no one writes books today about Hodges, or his “genius for war,” or the fighting qualities of his indomitable 1st Army. Maybe they should.
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