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Hodges: A Genius for War?

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: October 28, 2010 
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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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24 Responses to “Hodges: A Genius for War?”


  1. 1
    Hodges was dumb says:

    If Hodges was so smart, why didn't he just go around the Germans like Patton did? Huh?

  2. 2
    Bill Nance says:

    Now, I'm not normally a Hodges defender – but sometimes you can hit a flank, sometimes you can't. Metz and the Saar are both occasions where 3rd Army had to slug straight ahead. Hodges, by luck of the draw, drew some of the worst terrain to advance and fight through.

  3. 3
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    f it was so blatantly obvious that Hodges was stupidly attacking through the forest rather than conducting an envelopment from the south… why didn't Eisenhower, or Bradley, or Patton, or Montgomery, or Marshall, or Churchill, or Roosevel…t, or Alanbrooke call for some sort of meeting in order to explain to Courtney how to properly manage his army? Why didn't Americans read the newspapers, see the situation on the map, and write their senators to demand that the incompetent Hodges be removed from command?

    Instead, rather than criticize Hodges in his memoirs, Bradley stated that Hodges was clearly one of the best, if not the best, infantry commanders in the US Army. Meanwhile, General Collins stated that although there were many difficulties around Aachen and in the Hurten Forest, they were such that "none… could have been avoided." Meanwhile, the esteemed Lieutenant George Wilson (4th Division) went out of his way in his memoirs to praise Hodges as under appreciated and competent. And let's not suggest that Hodges was like Haig during WWI, for unlike Haig, Hodges had extensive combat experience as an infantry soldier during the Meuse-Argonne Forest campaign. Indeed, Hodges had far more combat experience than Patton!

    Therefore, I find it difficult to conclude that Hodges was a bumbling out-of-touch commander who simply blundered his way through the Hurtgen Forest. The very idea of simply shifting the army's axis towards the north and approaching the forest from the south seems over-simplified to me. According to my maps, the Hurtgen Forest is part of a much larger tangle of rough terrain which it would have been impossible to simply maneuver around. Inevitably, somewhere, First Army would have been forced to engage against strong German defenses which were based upon a line of forested hills.

    My personal conclusion is that the eventual attack from the south succeeded only because the Germans had suffered so many casualties during the mean-time. This seems to have been the conclusion of Collins. It was attrition warfare, and why shouldn't it have been? Isn't that the American way of war?

  4. 4
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    In the previous post, the first word is "if". This website should really allow people to edit their posts.

  5. 5
    Luke Truxal says:

    As Adam has pointed out to me several times Hodges made the mistake of being between Patton and Monty.

  6. 6
    Luke Truxal says:

    I have not studied the 1st Army as much as Adam has, but it appears to me that Hodges acted as the anvil while Monty and Patton served as the hammer. Without Hodges fixing the Germans in front of him would Patton and Montgomery have succeeded?

    If Hodges was really a bad commander wouldn't they have fired him like Fredendall?

    Adam did Hodges have the ability to maneuver around?

  7. 7
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    No, Hodges had no room to maneuver strategically. Collins addresses this very point when he talks about the Hurtgen forest, and he says in theory if Hodges had somehow gone elsewhere, then that would have just meant that some other army would have had to go through the Hurtgen forest.

    As for Hodges pinning the Germans in place, this was definitely the situation during early August – the difficult fighting around Vire was precisely what created the opportunity for Patton and Montgomery to encircle the Germans via Falaise and Argentan.

    Subsequently, I've always thought it was disingenuous to criticize Hodges for pushing the troops too hard in the Hurtgen forest. I'm pretty sure that was his job, and if he wasn't doing that, they would have replaced him and found someone who would. Its obvious the fighting in the Hurtgen forest was a nightmare struggle just like the fighting in the bocage had been. I don't think this was a 'mistake' or a problem, this was what WWII was like. Americans seem to constantly whine about all these 'incompetent' generals who became bogged down in vicious close-combat attrition warfare. All you need to do is glance at the eastern front in order to see what was 'normal' for WWII. The Hurtgen forest was the rule, not the exception.

  8. 8
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    I think what I'm really trying to say is that the notion that WWII was a highly mobile war, characterized by stunning armored maneuvers, this is really just an exaggerated myth caused by the early German 'blitz' campaigns. The reality was that much of WWII was very much like WWI. There were trenches, and fortifications, and machine-guns, and lots of frontal assaults. Admittedly, vehicles certainly made things more fluid, but that is very easy to exaggerate. The reality is that the armies learned to create defenses in depth, and even though a front might swing a hundred miles or more, at the end of the day the troops still maintained a continuous front where they held strong positions.

    Operation Cobra is a good example. Despite the hype, there really was no genuine strategic 'breakthrough' in the sense that this term is normally used. First Army did not rip open a gap in the middle of the German line through which the 'cavalry 'of Third Army were able to pour through. All that happened was that heavy pressure bent the German left wing back, which allowed Third Army to move around the German flank. For the purposes of teaching high school history this is an irrelevant point. But this does explain why First Army was stumbling through minefields and facing entrenched tanks in early August, because the fact of the matter is that the German front remained 'unbroken'.

    I think a lot of Americans look at the fighting in Tunisia, or Italy, or Normandy, or the Hurtgen, or the Ardennes, and they conclude that somebody most have made an idiotic mistake. Not at all. The war was just a much more difficult struggle than most people realize.

  9. 9
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    I think we'll call this the Hodges axiom: If you've had a breakthrough, and then you are stopped by artillery, minefields, machine-guns, and entrenched tanks. And then the enemy counterattacks and actually pushes some of your units backwards. Guess what. You haven't had a breakthrough.

  10. 10
    Bill Nance says:

    Adam, I'll disagree wtih you a little here – there was a breakthrough for the 12th Army Group – just not for First Army. Third Army did indeed penetrate the German lines and did an end around the German Seventh Army.

    That said, the German resistance was a little more than publicized for them too. There was some pretty serious fighting to the southwest of Paris for Third Army before they smashed German resistance.

    On your other point about WW 2 looking like WW 1, I tend to agree with you, although I hope you will agree that #2 DID see more mobility, just not as much as advertised. Just got finished fighting the Moselle, Saar, and Rhineland campaigns with the cavalry for the third time, and I am struck by how much fighting was required to advance even a couple miles. I know in my 3rd Group chapter, I referred to the fighitng in the hill country of the Saar as similar to that of Korea – a war of hilltop outposts, artillery barrages, raids, and vicious fights for no-name hills.

  11. 11
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    Of course, as I just said above, WWII was definitely more mobile than WWI, however the mobility is grossly exaggerated. The seesaw fighting in Libya and Egypt is a good example of how greater mobility simply resulted in a larger no-man's land. Ultimately, most of the war involved infantry on foot attacking forward against entrenched-positions under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire.

    As for the breakthrough in Normandy, I think there is a telling reason why Blumenson entitled his book 'break-out'. By pushing the German flank back, there was definitely an opportunity for Third Army to push south and go around the German flank. However, Third Army did not really "penetrate" the German line. The German line was gone. It had pulled back. There was effectively empty space in front of Third Army, and there really was nothing to 'break through'. This is really a semantic issue and not terribly important, but is useful in noting, because it explains why First Army remains engaged in direct opposition to 7th Army. Had 7th Army been cut in two, then yes there would have been a break through. But nobody broke through 7th Army. It retreated, it wasn't broken.

  12. 12
    Bill Nance says:

    Umm, Adam, we might be aggressively agreeing here, but Cobra WAS a breakthrough in that the German line was penetrated on its extreme end. You are correct that Third Army advanced into open space (not entirely true, but true enough). The German line where COBRA occurred was essentially annihilated. On First Army's front (really the eastern portion of their zone, since the breakthrough was a First Army op), the Germans did do as you say, but the Germans really didn't refuse their western or southern flank, they were cleanly broken, and had to move forces to protect their southern flank.

    This is one of the reasons for the success of the entire operation. With their containment line in Normandy broken, the Germans could not react fast enough to create another proper line that wasn't simply one enormous bag before they had retreated all the way to the Moselle in the South, and really the Siegfried Line in the North (for the American sectors).

    So in sum, First Army held the GermanSeventh Army in place, smashed their containment line at its far western edge, which then allowed Third Army to exploit the penetration. The German Seventh Army did a good job at extricating itself from the dangers created by the breakthrough however.

    Of course most of this is semantic, as you state, but I think it is telling that the Germans continued to fight and contest the ground even as the situation rapidly became untenable. Doesn't sound like a broken, morale-poor army to me.

  13. 13
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    I think we have different definitions of 'breakthrough', mine is clearly much more narrowly defined. Ultimately, I don't think the term is particularly appropriate because of its connotation. It creates the suggestion that the subsequent operations were able to advance into space, essentially unopposed by significant defenses. This just wasn't the case.

    The word 'through' suggests something well in excess of what happened. Even Blumenson makes the mistake of stating that in the aftermath of Cobra the Germans were "impotent". No, I disagree. The Germans did conduct a fighting retreat, which is exactly what a genuine breakthrough is supposed to prevent.

    Ultimately, was the effect essentially the same? Sure, by attacking on the flank, Third Army was able to envelop the German flank, but this was only because of geography, not because the German line had ceased to exist. This is why its not a terribly important issue to argue about. But for the troops in First Army, I think it was quite clear that they were pushing a line backwards, rather than having broken through and bypassed that line.

  14. 14
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    I just think most people have a very broad definition of breakthrough that might as well be applied to every time an army attacks and hits the enemy line. Just because you attack and advance past the enemy line does not mean its a breakthrough. In my opinion a true operational breakthrough allows you to smash through an enemy line so FAST, such that your troops are well in the enemy rear, while their infantry are still stuck in their starting positions. This is not what happened in Cobra. The Germans successfully retreated in front of the Allied advance. They took heavy casualties, sure, but they still pulled their divisions back to a second line, and then a third, and then a fourth.

    All of these lines were ultimately broken through in the broadest sense that American units pushed through them. But that is a mis-use of the term. People are looking at a line on a map, and saying, "Well, the Allies passed that line, so therefore they clearly broke through the line." But the term doesn't really apply to a geographic line, but rather to the line formed by an army. In the case of Cobra, the Germans steadily pulled their defensive line steadily backwards in front of the Allied advance. Unfortunately, for them, the geography was such that as they retreated their flank was left wide open. It was this that allowed Allied troops to get behind the German line. Had there been a truly genuine breakthrough, entire German divisions would have been completely surrounded and forced to surrender, and not at Falaise, but at Coutances.

  15. 15
    Luke Truxal says:

    So Cobra was more of a German route than a breakthrough?

  16. 16
    Bill Nance says:

    Just to be dogmatic – This is straight from FM 1-02, the US Army's doctrinal dictionary.
    breakthrough – A rupturing of the enemy’s forward defenses that occurs as a result of a
    penetration. A breakthrough permits the passage of an exploitation force. See also attack;
    exploitation; pursuit. (FM 3-90)

    First Army's operation Cobra resulted in a penetration, the Third Army was the exploitation force.

  17. 17
    roger cirillo says:

    In the case of First Army, the key question is how were the corps used? As the corps did the fighting, their success defines the army success. In the Huertgen, Bradley pulled V Corps south to reinforce on a non existent path into Germany while supporting his secondary effort against the Saar. This gave Hodges inadequate strength during the key weeks of the campaign, early September. The ball game was always north of the ardennes; to cripple yourself by spreading out on a large front gave the ability to block small penetrations to the Germans, rather than try to fight a massive one both in the Aachen Cologne Corridor, and north around the Siegfried Line in Holland and northern Belgium.

  18. 18
    Adam Rinkleff says:

    Well, the definition of 'forward' can be pretty vague, and frankly I'm not convinced that the FM1-02 is the epitome of military terminology. In any case, I'm not saying there wasn't a tactical breakthrough. All I'm saying is that a genuine strategic breakthrough is a particularly special circumstance, and I don't think Cobra achieved that.

    I think Luke Truxal is far more accurate in suggesting the term "rout" but I would suggest the term "fighting retreat" as an even more accurate of the German activity. The German line was smashed heavily, but rather than being broken and left behind, the Germans were able to pull back and offer significant resistance as they did so. In a true breakthrough, the defenses do NOT pull back. That's the big difference.

    As it happened, they pulled their line back towards the southeast, thus attempting to refuse their flank and thereby allowing VIII Corps (NOT Third Army) to advance towards the south. Ultimately, the Germans failed to secure their flank, and the result was that Third Army was eventually able (weeks later) to flank the German forces.

    Ultimately, flankings and breakthroughs can have the same long-term strategic outcome in that they result in a deep penetration of the enemy's strategic rear. However, when it comes down to it, I insist that the defenses of Seventh Army were pushed back and flanked, rather than broken through. Its a fairly semantic difference, but it does explain why First Army faced such heavy fighting subsequently.

    In fact, if you look at a map, you will see clearly that the geographic region of Cobra was not where the so-called 'breakthrough' army advanced. These were in fact entirely separate operations in two separate regions. VIII Corps did not advance through the Cobra zone, because there wasn't a genuine breakthrough there. VIII Corps advanced to the west, where the Germans had simply withdrawn.

    If Cobra had been a breakthrough, you would have seen VII corps conduct a breakthrough attack which would have been followed by VIII Corps advancing through the area already cleared by VII corps. This isn't what happened at all. Instead, VII attacked frontally, forcing the enemy before it to withdraw, and thereby precipitating the rapid withdrawal of the forces before VIII Corps. Once again, if VII Corps had achieved a breakthrough on its own, it would have been able to cut behind the forces facing VIII Corps and upon reaching Coutances it would have trapped the German forces to the north. THIS DID NOT HAPPEN. This was in fact the goal of Cobra, and it was NOT achieved.

    The Germans managed to retreat and avoided the danger of a genuine breakthrough.

  19. 19
    Bill K. says:

    Alan -

    I believe the reason that Bradley is so charitable toward Hodges in reference to the Huertgen Forest operations is because, in fact, the "fault" does not ultimately lie with Hodges but higher up with Bradley. 1st Army was not obliged to attack the Huertgen, an area that negated every allied advantage. The could have well held their frontage or even bypassed the area and need not worried much about the 5000 odd German troops with little armor and a bad road net counterattacking – in fact it is likely that in bypassing the Huertgen the germans would have simply retreated. In fact, German sources indicate that OKW was confused as to why US forces would attack such an area, with the possible exception of taking the Roer River dams, which US commanders never recognized as an objective until much later in the year.

  20. 20
    Bill K. says:

    That said, I think Hodges fought his divisions there as well as anyone could have.

    In terms of mobility in WWII, I think it must be considered wholistically – Not just in the ETO for 9 months – ie, after Cobra and bocage until hitting the German border in Sept. until after the Bulge in Jan., 1945.

    Remember the fighting in Italy was a slog, the Volturno River, Cassino Line, the Gothic Line – Okinawa, the Shuri line and X Corps, Iwo Jima a slog, the Philippines, etc, etc – These are areas where tactical air power and armored mobility leant little to the winning of the fighting.

  21. 21

    I really must make the comment that it's very a novelty to come across a relatively original blog like yours, good job. I look forward to visiting frequently. BTW I'll be looking out for your next comment then.

  22. 22
    Jim says:

    Hodges commanded and led the Americans stupidly through the Hurtgen forest which had no roads killing thousand of GIs. The worst General ever.

  23. 23
    Michael says:

    So…

    Hodges should have cut down the forests and built roads before he engaged the Germans?…

    …or maybe Hodges should have fought the Germans in Nebraska, where terrain and logistics favored the Americans?

    There was a reason that the Germans made such a stand in the Hurtgen forest, and that was because they found defending such territory advantageous to them.

    A little bit of knowledge often sounds much worse than no knowledge at all.

  24. 24
    Jim Herrmann says:

    I have long thought that both Bradley and Hodges were vastly over-rated among ETO commanders. Both had their comeuppance during the Ardennes Campaign–both were shuffled to the side and played little or no role in the campaign.

    Both Hodges and Bradley thought and fought at the pace of the infantry–in fairness, Montgomery did as well, but Montgomery possessed sufficient insight and skill to know to husband his manpower.

    The most that can be claimed for either Bradley or Hodges is competence. True masters of their craft–Collins, Truscott, and Patton–displayed nimbleness of thought that matched the mobility and flexibility of the formations they led. Suppose Patton and Hodges roles were reversed. Can anyone seriously imagine Patton being taken so utterly by surprise as Hodges was in the Ardennes? Can anyone really see Hodges duplicating Patton's feats of mobility in storming to the rescue of Bastogne?

    Similarly, if Patton led the 12th Army Group instead of Bradley, Can anyone doubt that no German would have escaped from the Falaise pocket to fight again? If Patton commanded 1st and 3rd Armies in the Ardennes, could anyone doubt that the Bulge would have been cut off at the base rather than at the waist–trapping not only all the equipment but all the manpower of two Panzer Armies as well?

    Now back up a year and shift focus several hundred miles to the South. Had Patton been given a looser rein in Sicily, who can seriously doubt that no German soldier would have made it back to Italy to fight again. If Patton or Truscott had lead at either Salerno or Anzio, can anyone imagine them being stalled by inferior forces for as long as Clark and Lucas were?

    How many Allied casualties occurred in Italy after 1943? How many in Northwest Europe after September, 1944?

    The most 'GI' aspect of 'The GI General' was his penchant for consigning American soldiers to 'GI' graves.



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