A WISE MAN ONCE REMINDED US THAT “we see through a glass, darkly.” Part of the human condition is that our perception of events doesn’t often match reality. Certainty eludes us. And that’s a real problem in analyzing the ebb and flow of World War II. We all enjoy judging those who fought the war. Sitting with friends, drinking a brew, and talking smack about the encirclement of Nancy or the Battle of Saipan is half the fun of being a buff—a reflection of how fascinating we still find the vast conflict.
But before second-guessing anyone, we should try to stand in their shoes, get in their heads, and see what they were seeing. Take that crazy first half of September 1944 when the Western Allies had broken out of their bridgehead, repelled all German counterattacks, and crushed two German armies at Falaise. Then they raged eastward across northern France. Paris fell on August 25 (without being burned to the ground, per Hitler’s orders) and a week later Allied armies launched an offensive across the Seine.
The German army responded by falling apart. The Allies moved forward everywhere.Resistance melted and cities fell in a rush: Brussels and Antwerp to the Anglo-Canadians, Mons and Verdun to the Americans. By September 3, Patton’s Third Army crossed the Meuse River and headed for the Moselle. The view from the other side was depressing. Roads out of France were choked with German soldiers and superfluous occupation bureaucrats. Scenes of panic erupted everywhere, with columns jostling for position. Fights broke out among unkempt German soldiers drunk on looted cognac. It was the death of an army, or at least that’s what the Allies thought.
What they didn’t see—couldn’t see—was what was happening underneath. Yes, the Wehrmacht was in a tailspin, but it was already recovering its equilibrium. New divisions were rushed to the front, made up of men from rear areas and offices—even the lightly wounded from the hospital. The High Command sent up to 100,000 new men to France in the first half of September. Military police cleared roads, restored order, and in some cases executed deserters. The German ground commander in the West, Field Marshal Walter Model, was experienced in reviving comatose armies, having recently done it after the German collapse at Minsk. He issued a proclamation, had it posted on likely retreat routes, and even airdropped it to his own troops. “We’ve lost a battle,” he said. “But I promise you we are still going to win this war!” It was time to stand and fight, he declared, “to separate the men from the wimps!” By mid-September, he patched gaping holes in the front. While the defenses weren’t too robust, they were cohesive enough for the moment.
The recovery’s speed explains much about the resulting campaign. The Allies never got the euphoria out of their minds. The notion of a “dissolving Wehrmacht” inspired Montgomery’s risky Market Garden plan. Your opponent is collapsing? Hit him with a huge airborne operation. It may explain Patton’s attempt to rush 80th Division across the Moselle at three widely separate locations. Your enemy is on the ropes? Bull-rush him.
The perception of a German collapse helps explain why the first American attack on Aachen was little more than a reconnaissance patrol the Germans beat back easily. Your foe wants to surrender? Why stage a set piece battle? Montgomery’s belief that the Wehrmacht was finished explains why he didn’t seize the Scheldt River estuary after Antwerp fell. The war was nearly over, he thought, and every Allied regiment should have been rushing to Germany. Even later, when the recovery was manifest, the notion that the Germans were on the edge still lingered and helps explain why the Allies were so shocked by the Germans’ great Ardennes counteroffensive in December.
We can easily easy look back at the Allies in the fall of 1944 and criticize their decisions. But remember that dark glass? Peering through it wasn’t easy for anybody—just one of the many reasons that talking about war is much simpler than actually fighting one.✯