Monday, November 30, 2009

Coulda, Shoulda

Our friend Derek Catsam asks what I think of this article (drawn from a book) by historian David Colley critiquing a decision by General Eisenhower. Read Derek's post and Colley's article and come back.

Done? Okay. Jeffrey J. Clarke and Robert Ross Smith, Riviera to the Rhine (Wash D.C.: CMH, 1993) is the official history volume that covers these events. Chapter 24 is called "Lost Opportunities," and it includes a section called "A Dubious Decision," so Colley isn't exactly bucking conventional wisdom. If anything, Colley would be more of a revisionist if he gave Ike credit for the decision.

But here's the thing, most military historians and analysts favor maneuver--the more dramatic the better. What they often miss is that dramatic maneuvers in broad front wars can be effective but are often extremely costly. In that sense, it is misleading to state that the casualties of the Battle of the Bulge could have been preempted by a November 1944 attack by 6th Army Group across the Rhine. Such an attack would have created a salient with extended frontage that would have to be defended. The German units that fought in the Bulge would have to be defeated somewhere, and it is not clear by any means that fighting them (and others) along an extended bridgehead over the upper Rhine would have been less costly, especially considering the terrible weather of that winter. The inevitable German counterattacks probably would have caused similar casualties to the Bulge.

(The area at issue is in the bottom right corner. Click on the map for a larger image.)

There are specific issues to the decision too, such as Eisenhower having to pull resources from his main coalition ally in Montgomery to support the crossing, or the fact that Eisenhower thought with good reason that Patton was his most effective operational commander and should thus lead the main effort in the region, or that Devers's Army Group had a large salient known as the Colmar Pocket on his right flank and the largely French forces tasked with reducing the pocket took until February to finish the task, or that Omar Bradley (whose opinion should count) also opposed the early crossing.

Yes, fortune favors the bold, but Eisenhower was not depending on fortune to win, he was depending on well-thought-out American military strategic and operational concepts that sought to confront and destroy the enemy directly without taking undue losses. That meant, mong other things, not overextending fronts or lines of supply through dramatic maneuvers unless the enemy was in complete collapse (as happened in the late summer of 1944). I'm not saying Eisenhower was right--maybe Devers could have ended the war sooner and with fewer casualties--but to say that the correct decision was obvious and that Ike was driven only by personal animosity is the worst kind of Monday morning quarterbacking, and certainly not my favorite use of military history.


dcat said...

Cool. Thanks. Your "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" impression was my own, though I did not say as much because I don't know enough about the subject.

Still, good, bad, or marginal argument: How the hell did this guy get to present his book to the NYT in an op-ed? When am I going to catch a break like that?!?


Tom said...

Interestingly for a historian of the civil rights movement, Colley first popped up in WWII history discussions with a couple of books that focused largely on African American contributions to the war effort--one on the Red Ball Express and another on an integrated unit.

Grant Jones said...

Ike's eyes were on the Ruhr and Saar. He also wanted to clear the Rhineland before crossing the River in any strength. He believed this was necessary in order to avoid Ardennes type counter-attacks with the bulk of his forces committed east of the river. It wouldn't be until mid-November until Antwerp was cleared and open to support the Allied armies.

The First and Third Armies were heavily committed at the time also. Monty's idea of sending his 21st Army Group across the River in fall 1944 sounds about as dubious as Devers' idea to do the same in November. The Germans could have shattered a single army group on their home turf without any support and with flying weather getting bad.

Ike didn't have any divisions to spare and couldn't afford to loose any on bold gestures.

Monday morning quarterbacking indeed.

Stephen said...

Great post and discussion.