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Gumption and flexibility enabled German troops to claw their way out of jams.

The enduring image of the wartime German army is of troops charging relentlessly across Belgian canals, through French villages, down Russian roads, over Libyan dunes. Yet in contrast to the first 38 months of the war in which German forces were on the offensive, from November 1942 on the Wehrmacht was either stationary or in retreat.

But in many ways the Wehrmacht fighting in retreat makes for a more fascinating tale than that of the same forces on the attack. Time and time again in the second half of the war, the German army pulled off feats that would have done Harry Houdini proud. Had the Wehrmacht shouldered its way out of tough corners merely a time or two we might credit luck. However, the Germans slipped the noose so often the witness of history must infer a phenomenon.

Too frequently historians have sought to blame Allied commanders’ over-cautious approach, rather than crediting Wehrmacht leadership, tactical doctrine, and iron-clad discipline. Rocked back on their hobnailed heels, the Germans consistently responded with fierce counterattacks that kept foes off balance while, if necessary, allowing comrades to organize the mechanics of flight—securing and defending bridges, highways, and other conduits, marshaling troops and transport vehicles, staging and conveying materiel, and maintaining discipline under duress. For when the Führer allowed it, the Germans were masters of escape.

Very often, of course, Adolf Hitler was his troops’ worst enemy, meddling as deeply as the regimental level when not barking Führerbefehle (“Führer orders”) that his soldiers stand or die on the battlefield, as in his grandiose diktat to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel on the last day of the battle of El Alamein (see “Hitler’s Blunders,” March/April 2011). “It will not be the first time in history that a strong will has triumphed over the bigger battalions,” Hitler telegraphed the Afrika Korps commander. “As to your troops, you can show them no other road than to victory or death.” (Sensibly, Rommel showed his troops the road to Tunisia.)

Contrary to Hitler’s binary view, his army often had a third option: namely, to retreat tactically, and then counterattack pursuers momentarily wrong-footed by their own careering advance and either retake the lost ground or make possible a getaway. Students of history are commonly warned against using the word “inevitable,” since in history nothing is inevitable— nothing, that is, except German counterattack.

Withdrawal might not have been in the plan, but in the field Wehrmacht officers and non-coms discerned between orders and assumptions from on high and what would work then and there. They were trained to command two levels up and to always, always strike back effectively. This left Allied commanders rightly wary of German forces in withdrawal, which not only propitiated German retreats but in time led historians to miscredit Allied timidity for successful German pirouettes out of peril.

Capital invested in counterattack was well spent. If in 1943 Germans had been captured on a scale anything like the Poles were in 1939, or the French in 1940, or the Russians—3.5 million of them—in 1941, the Third Reich could not have stayed a military power into 1944. Yet even on the defensive in 1943 and 1944 the Germans generally did not relinquish masses of men, save when Hitler ordered last-ditch stands. Most German commanders saw a duty to withdraw units while they still were able to retard an enemy’s advance at the next forest or gorge or town. “Behind every hill there’s another river,” a weary Lieutenant General Mark W. Clark said of the Italian Campaign, “and behind every river there’s another hill.” And beyond every one, Wehrmacht men waiting to pounce.

Sometimes there was no way out. Surrounded at Stalingrad, 91,000 Axis troops surrendered in February 1943. Three months later in Tunisia another quarter million capitulated. And in Belarus in July 1944, Operation Bagration cost a total of 513,000 German soldiers. These episodes aside, however, when cornered the Wehrmacht usually engineered a means of running away to fight another day.

This pattern held more or less consistently until January 1945. But why? Historians fiercely debate the extent to which the Germans were punching above their weight, and over the decades the Wehrmacht’s World War II reputation has waxed and waned. At one time not a few academics were in agreement that the German army deserved high marks. In a detailed 1977 analysis, American military historian and West Point man Trevor Dupuy calculated that German combat effectiveness in 1943–44 exceeded that of the Americans and the British by 20 to 30 percent. “On a man-for-man basis,” Dupuy wrote, “German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing American and British troops under all circumstances. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had local air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.” Other historians contested Dupuy’s methods and interpretation both immediately and over the long haul, and continue to offer data in counterpoint to the notion that Germany’s military possessed a singular aptitude for war.

Whatever the nature of combat effectiveness, it only begins to explain how sensational escapes became almost commonplace. An early example came in 1943 at Sicily. The Allies, having begun on July 10 to invest the island with 450,000 troops, expected to scoop up 350,000 defenders, a third of them Germans. That hope foundered on the rock of German skill reinforced by German will—not to fight to the death, but to ensure the absconding of men and materiel.

When the Allies reached Sicily, “filling the sea to the horizon,” as military historian Basil Liddell Hart recorded, Italian defense units on the south coast surrendered en masse, leaving Italian field divisions behind them to be, as 15th Army Group commander General Harold Alexander put it, “driven like chaff before the wind.” Nearly all the burden of defending southern Sicily fell to two German divisions, reinforced by two more.

The Wehrmacht’s performance at Catania, midway up the eastern side of the triangle that is Sicily, embodied German escape-through-counterattack. Defenders in the port’s vicinity parried Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s Eighth Army for more than a week, and spirited Wehrmacht counterstrikes nearly reached the southern invasion beaches. On June 11, near Gela, the Hermann Göring Division and a detachment of new 56-ton Tiger tanks poured onto the plain in groups that overran American outposts. Only well-directed naval gunfire prevented these tankers from repelling the Allies in their area, whereupon the Germans moved off to attack the British sector near Catania.

On July 14 the German 1st Parachute Division was dropped a bit less than two miles behind the Axis line south of Catania. In a typically bold scheme, General Karl Student, commander of the 11th Air Corps, had wanted to put his paratroops behind Allied lines. Hitler countermanded Student’s order, but fate lent a hand, as Student recalled after the war: the 1st Parachute Division “landed almost simultaneously with the British parachute troops who were dropped behind our front to open the bridge across the Simeto River. It overcame these British parachute troops and rescued the bridge from their hands.” The British needed three days of stiff fighting to recapture the bridge and open the plain of Catania for their armor. By then all German units south of the Simeto had withdrawn north.

As German forces consolidated there, the Allied advance collided with Wehrmacht reserves fiercely defending the coast road to Messina. The reserves’ willingness to counterattack, along with German paratroops’ kindred grit, bought time for fellow soldiers at the rear to withdraw by forcing Montgomery and his forces to detour west around Mount Etna. Nor were American forces able to cut off the enemy; on July 22 Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s Seventh Army captured Palermo, but could not keep German units from retreating toward Messina and poising to flee 60 miles across the Straits to the mainland, at Reggio.

On August 1, the Allies reinforced Sicily, landing two new divisions from North Africa—the U.S. 9th and the British 78th— bringing their complement to 12 divisions. The Germans also reinforced, with the 29th Panzergrenadier Division and elements of the 14th Panzer Corps, all under General H. V. Hube. Hube’s seemingly insurmountable task, ordered by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was to extricate intact from the island as many Axis forces and as much of their equipment as possible. Earlier, on the surmise that Italy would defect, Hube’s splendidly named colleague, General Fridolin Rudelin Theodor von Senger und Etterlin, had planned and begun to implement that escape. Trying to snag the Germans, Patton sent three amphibious attacks behind German lines, and Montgomery one. Each time the Wehrmacht rear guard eluded attackers.

Over six days and nights, protected by antiaircraft gunners, German vessels shuttled between Messina and Reggio, carrying men, equipment, and supplies. Historian Peter Caddick-Adams labels Senger’s scheme and Hube’s implementation of it an exemplar of “tri-service, multinational coordination and ingenuity.” The move saved four divisions from fiasco with no serious interception or significant loss. Entering Messina at 6:30 a.m. on August 17, an American patrol found a ghost town emptied of nearly 40,000 Germans (including 13,500 wounded) and 62,000 Italians, as well as 9,500 vehicles, 47 tanks, 94 guns, and 17,000 tons of fuel, ammunition, and other materiel. Caddick-Adams ranks the episode alongside the 1940 British cross-Channel elopement from Dunkirk, calling it “an achievement that did not bode well for the Allies in the months ahead.”

The Germans followed the lessons of their Sicilian escape for the next 18 months. The drill varied, but its essence was to respond to a successful enemy assault by counterattacking to throw off the foe’s advance, meanwhile capturing and holding key bridges and other transport nodes, preventing flanking attacks, exploiting terrain, especially in mountainous regions, evacuating swiftly (often by night), and taking risks. Replicated on battlefields as disparate as Normandy, the Ardennes, and the Soviet Union, these tactics kept hundreds of thousands of Germans fighting instead of languishing as POWs.

Long after the war, Senger, who had gone on to command the XIV Panzer Corps at Monte Cassino, had a suggestion for British military historian Michael Howard, who was himself awarded a Military Cross for valor at Salerno. “Next time you invade Italy,” Senger told Howard, “don’t start at the bottom.” Once the Allies landed on Italy’s toe in September 1943, they began a fighting trek north against a foe making maximum use of topographical advantage and expertly improvising rear-guard actions while backing grudgingly and violently along the Apennine range. Repeatedly, it was the Germans who chose when they would retreat. Allied troops, made fearful of booby traps, gave chase warily.

In his recent book Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell, Caddick-Adams tells the grisly story of the Liri Valley, the last major geographical obstacle before Rome. The valley’s houses, built of bulletproof travertine, made the Germans intensely hard to dislodge. In one of many fights, a 38-man paratroop unit assembled by Lieutenant Jupp Klein held a farm, tying down a British battalion and destroying 13 tanks before being savaged. Klein led the survivors to safety through enemy lines, duping sentries by shouting “Polish soldiers!” in the dark.

As late as May 17, the eve of Monte Cassino’s fall, German defenders were ambushing Allied pursuers on narrow mountain roads. “Screams pierced through clouds of smoke as the Germans poured their fire into the exposed men and machines,” American war correspondent Will Lang wrote about the ambush of a French column.“The tank exploded with a roar and belched a mass of flame and smoke as the ammunition inside caught fire. Other vehicles were catching fire as their frantic, crazed occupants scrambled out, running up the road.”

Rome fell on June 5, 1944, but in the two weeks preceding both General Heinrich von Vietinghoff’s 10th Army and General Eberhard von Mackensen’s 14th Army dodged the Allied drive, with Mark Clark generally blamed for failing to cut off Vietinghoff and the seven divisions he extracted by way of a major highway.

A day after taking Rome, the Allies rocked the Reich by invading Normandy. German soldiers unlucky enough to be at the beaches enjoyed no miraculous escape, and many who attempted to surrender after hours of cutting down Allied men on the strand encountered no mercy. But inland the Germans pulled off another remarkable coup of deliverance.

In early August 1944, Allied forces surging east and south from Normandy nearly enveloped Army Group B, led by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, at Falaise. Obedient to an order by Hitler, who was on the mend after the July 20 assassination attempt, Kluge counterattacked at Mortain (see “Danger Zone,” July/August 2013). Beginning on August 7, this underpowered, unsuccessful six-day stand set up the German 7th Army in and around Falaise to be encircled and destroyed—assuming British, Canadian, and Polish forces along the northeast flank and American troops on the southeast could close a pincer movement. But fear of friendly fire from the other Allied claw slowed the American advance. The Americans then withdrew, in the process leaving an eastward corridor all the way to the Seine.

On August 16, Hitler demanded another counterattack. Kluge refused. Hitler agreed to a withdrawal but sacked his general. Kluge’s replacement, fellow Field Marshal Walther Model, ordered the 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army out of Falaise.

As historian Rick Atkinson notes, Model’s favorite question was “Can’t that be done faster?” and his pet quote was a line by Goethe:“I love the one who craves the impossible.” Model meant to cross the Seine. So his men could reach the bank, he sent cobbled-together SS panzer elements to hold back the Allies and keep open an east-west route 20 miles long and 10 miles deep while other SS men secured 60 points along the river.

As Allied gunners zeroed in, Model began moving his men by any means necessary. Atkinson quotes an observer who saw panzergrenadiers near the Dives River clinging “like burrs” to tanks. The gauntlet claimed many Germans; most of those who survived were able to traverse to safety. They did not travel elegantly and they had to abandon their heavy tanks, but they made it, floating on makeshift rafts and dead cows. Others crossed aboard 24 improvised ferries too light for Tigers but substantial enough to haul out of harm’s way (for the moment) 25,000 lighter vehicles, a third of the Germans’ other equipment including many 88mm guns, and four of five corps commanders.

Falaise was a significant Allied victory—Panzer Group West sustained around 50,000 killed, wounded, and captured to the Allies’ 29,000—but the German talent for taking a powder whisked as many as 100,000 Wehrmacht troops free of a trap that ought to have ensnared them.

Retreats produce victory no more than do evacuations, as Winston Churchill observed after Dunkirk. Yet Wehrmacht morale remained strong; loyalty to brothers-in-arms was a powerful thing. So was Nazi fanaticism, the desire to protect the Fatherland, and faith in the Führer to deploy some new secret war-winning superweapon. But above all, as British historian Max Hastings has written, many Wehrmacht officers “abandoned coherent thought about the future and merely performed the immediate military functions that were so familiar to them”—notably, extricating their men from dangerous situations with minimum acceptable casualties.

The Führer’s last slap at the Allied tide was a 500,000-man surprise attack through the Ardennes, undertaken in several feet of snow. Orders were to be delivered solely by motorbike, the way shown by searchlights beamed at clouds, turning night to day. The dense overcast grounded Allied planes, and as long as the cloud cover lasted, the offensive worked, almost reaching the River Meuse. But once the sun emerged and Allied pilots could fly again the German capacity for escape melted. Against determined Anglo-American resistance, the Ardennes counterstroke crumbled. Fierce and enterprising Wehrmacht divisions were out of gas, literally and figuratively, unable to muster one last miracle. German troops began surrendering en masse, a pattern that accelerated after the Allies crossed the Rhine in March 1945.

Overall, the Wehrmacht excelled at attack—as the long shadow of the swastika over much of continental Europe from 1939 to 1943 attests—but was superb at defense. Had a superior German strategist—such as Erich von Manstein, Gerd von Rundstedt, Erwin Rommel, or Heinz Guderian—been allowed to command there can be little doubt that the Wehrmacht would have fared far better. In the realm of withdrawal and counterattack, luring foes into range of punishing counterstrokes, the Wehrmacht often merely needed the Führer to recuse himself.

All too frequently, however, Führerprinzip—the Nazi axiom of Hitler’s infallibility—prevailed. Hitler’s promises that no one could stop his armies barred his propaganda machine from acknowledging retreat, and, as always when party and army interests diverged, the army lost out. A German commander in chief not fettered to fanaticism might have won the Second World War. By hobbling the Wehrmacht’s genius for strategic withdrawal Hitler proved an invaluable aid to the Allies.


Originally published in the October 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.