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Patton’s Ghost Corps

by Nathan N. Prefer, Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1998, $24.95.

While British and Canadian armies struggled to overcome the bulk of German panzer strength before the city of Caen in the summer of 1944, General George S. Patton’s Third Army broke out and raced across France.

Determined to restore his reputation after being relieved of command of the Seventh Army and consigned to temporary obscurity, Patton, the flamboyant, outspoken cavalryman, pushed his troops hard east, north and south against collapsing German resistance. He “rushed out of a doghouse,” as General George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, put it, and endeared himself to the press.

But the race ended abruptly at the German border, where the resilient Wehrmacht managed to stop the Allies short of German soil in most areas. That defense, combined with a critical supply problem, slowed the advance of the Allied armies to a crawl.

The Third Army got bogged down in the mud before Metz and spent much time and effort in seizing the fortress city. Meanwhile, to the north, the First and Ninth armies were also mired before the Siegfried Line, the major German defensive line.

While the Americans rested and regrouped, an enemy offensive developed in the snow-clad Ardennes Forest. When the Battle of the Bulge broke out, Patton’s Third Army had three attached corps. He ordered the III Corps and XII Corps to divert northward to assist in containing, and later reducing, the German penetration in the First Army area. This left only one corps, Maj. Gen. Walton H. Walker’s XX Corps, to man the line that was formerly held by all three.

The XX Corps was ruthlessly stripped of all possible infantry units and all of its armored divisions to assist in the drive north. Ordered on the defensive, the XX manned the line with a minimum of troops and equipment. In the so-called Saar-Moselle Triangle, it was Patton’s only force directly facing Germany at the Siegfried Line. Plans drawn up before the German breakthrough had called for the entire Third Army–three corps, several armored divisions, much field artillery and a dozen infantry divisions–to breach the Siegfried Line, cross the Rhine River and advance into the Palatinate area of western Germany.

Although overshadowed by the much larger Battle of the Bulge and, later, the dramatic seizure of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, the Saar-Moselle campaign–and the resulting Saar-Palatinate campaign–were fine examples of the U.S. Army fighting at its best, says Nathan N. Prefer in his Patton’s Ghost Corps, an incisive and highly readable book. The XX Corps’ struggle in the Saar-Moselle Triangle, says Prefer, is a compelling argument that the American soldier was the equal of the German soldier, with or without the materiel advantages often proposed as the reason for his victories. Such advantages did not exist in the first weeks of the Saar-Moselle battle, as Prefer’s graphic narrative shows.

Supplies, particularly adequate clothing and hot food, did not reach the front-line troops in sufficient quantities to prevent weather-related casualties. Air support was minimal because of weather restrictions. Armor, another advantage commonly cited as being a determining factor in American victories, was available in the Saar-Moselle only in small amounts and for brief periods.

Artillery support was effective and available, but the Germans had equal resources and used them effectively. The depleted XX Corps faced a first-class, fully equipped panzer division and two infantry divisions. Yet, says Prefer, Maj. Gen. Harry J. Maloney’s spearhead 94th Infantry Division, with brief support from the 8th and later the 10th armored divisions, overcame the German defense. It was a costly struggle prolonged by the lack of resources assigned to the 94th.

The achievement of the 94th Infantry Division–which suffered 1,087 men killed in action, 4,684 wounded in combat and 113 missing in the fighting–points to the fact that in 1945 GIs were capable of accomplishing their mission under difficult circumstances. The American soldier had come a long way from the Kasserine Pass, where U.S. troops had fought–and lost–their first major battle of the war. The 94th ranks fourth for World War II casualties per combat day, after the 4th Infantry, 29th Infantry and 80th Infantry divisions. The reasons for the 94th’s success, according to General Maloney, were good morale and the esprit de corps he had developed. Despite the heavy losses and hardships endured, his men cracked the vaunted Siegfried Line twice, decimated three enemy divisions, seized 20,547 prisoners and pushed to the very heart of Germany.

Thoroughly documented and smoothly written, Patton’s Ghost Corps is both a gripping study of an overlooked campaign and a tribute to the draftee dogfaces who outfought their seasoned German foes. Prefer is also the author of MacArthur’s New Guinea Campaign: March-August 1944.

Michael D. Hull