Chapter 13: Antwerp, Arnhem and Some Controversies, August–September 1944
(See Sketches 22, 23 and 24)
The Pursuit to the Somme and Antwerp
The period following the crossing of the Seine witnessed the swiftest advances by British forces that took place during the entire campaign. No serious resistance was offered south of the River Somme, save at the fortress of Le Havre. The Allies’ worst anxieties during this phase were not the result of enemy opposition but of the logistical difficulties caused by the steadily increasing length of their own lines of supply (above, page 280) in the absence of any large port close to the front.
The Germans’ immediate problem was, first, to save their forces south of the Somme from encirclement and destruction, and, secondly, to stabilize the front, if possible, on that river (the first really considerable obstacle north of the Seine). In particular, they had to save the formations of the now attenuated Fifteenth Army, holding the coastal belt between the Seine and the East Scheldt, and commanded since 23 August by General Gustav von Zangen.1 On 24 August Field-Marshal Model indicated pretty clearly that forces were not available to hold the Seine–Yonne–Dijon line indicated in Hitler’s directive of 20 August (above, page 285) and suggested the preparation of successive positions in rear. The Somme–Marne line was mentioned, but since 30-35 first-line divisions were indicated as needed to hold it, this too was a battered hope.2 On 27 August the High Command concurred in Model’s policy in principle, while telling him to cling to the Seine–Yonne–Dijon line as long as possible to gain time.3 A serious attempt was made to form a stop-line on the canalized River Somme. A Seventh Army order dated 29 August4 contains detailed instructions for the preparation of a “Somme–Oise position”; the Seventh Army was to be responsible for the sector from Flixecourt (close to the Somme between Amiens and Abbeville) through La Fère to Guise on the upper Oise. On, probably, 28 August, the Fifteenth Army instructed the 67th Corps, then holding the coast south of the Somme, to withdraw its two divisions and one regiment and take up a line along the Somme from the sea to the boundary with Fifth Panzer Army,* whose front was to be taken over by the Seventh Army on 31 August.5 The movement of the
* General von Zangen recalls his left boundary as being Picquigny, but the Seventh Army order fixes it at Flixecourt, some five miles north-west.
67th Corps seems to have been carried out much according to plan, but farther east things went wrong.
[Footnote reference 6 is missing]
It is worth observing at this point that during the early days of September the Germans were still reaping dividends from the fierce resistance offered on the First Canadian Army front from Pont de l’Arche and Elbeuf to the sea on 25–29 August. Not only did this delay the beginning of the Army’s drive to the north, but the heavy action along the Seine and the casualties suffered there meant that the Canadian formations (and particularly the 2nd Infantry Division and the infantry* of the 4th Armoured Division) were tired and depleted when launched into the next stage of the pursuit. These things need to be borne in mind in assessing this phase.
We have seen (above, page 282) the orders issued by General Montgomery on 26 August for the advance north of the Seine, which prescribed the broad intention of the 21st Army Group as to destroy all enemy forces in the Pas de Calais and Flanders and capture Antwerp; the Canadian Army’s particular tasks being to take Le Havre, secure the port of Dieppe and proceed to destroy all enemy forces in the coastal belt up to Bruges. On 29 August an amendment eliminated the portion of this directive which forecast that the Allied Airborne Army would be dropped to cooperate with the Canadian Army in the Pas de Calais. Instead, there was now to be an airborne landing in the Tournai area in advance of the Second Army. This project too was soon cancelled by events.
On 30 August General Crerar issued a new directive7 to his corps commanders, giving the 2nd Canadian Corps the immediate task of capturing Dieppe, while such formations of the corps as were not required for this purpose were to continue to thrust along the main Army axis, Neufchâtel–Abbeville, “as a preliminary to an early crossing of R. Somme”. The 51st (Highland) Division of the 1st British Corps was to cross the Seine by the bridges at Elbeuf in the 2nd Corps area, and was then to revert to the command of the 1st British Corps for the operations in the Le Havre peninsula.
Rouen, we have seen, fell to the 2nd Canadian Corps on 30 August. On the morning of the 31st the corps advanced rapidly north and north-east. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division occupied Buchy; the 7th Reconnaissance Regiment (17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars), leading the advance of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, got into St. Saens; and the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars), performing the same function for the 2nd Division, reached Tôtes, halfway from Rouen to Dieppe. On the 1st British Corps front the leading troops of the 49th Division moved through Lillebonne towards Le Havre without encountering opposition. Main Headquarters First Canadian Army, having moved up from Amblie,† opened near Brionne at midnight of the 30th-31st.8
* General Montgomery’s liaison officer at HQ 2nd Canadian Corps reported on 28 August that the 10th Infantry Brigade was fighting three [rifle] companies to a battalion (i.e. three instead of four).
† This move was preceded, and delayed, by discussions with Headquarters No. 84 Group RAF, which felt in the first instance that it could not leave the complex of airfields adjacent to Amblie. While anxious to maintain the closest touch with the Group, Army HQ finally had to move to keep control of the battle. No. 84 Group followed it on 2 September, and the two headquarters remained cheek-by-jowl for the rest of the campaign.9
Again, as in the advance to the Seine, our columns were receiving a tremendous welcome from the French population. The heavy pounding from the air which Rouen had suffered did not prevent its people from greeting us with a warmth which was long remembered. When the commander of the 9th Infantry Brigade went into the city on 30 August (above, page 293), his scout car soon “became so bedecked with flowers that it resembled more closely a float in a May Day parade than a weapon of war”.10 In the smaller towns and the lovely countryside beyond Rouen the greeting was the same. Nor did it cease when the leading troops had passed. An officer who drove through Rouen and on to the north on 2 September tried to put something of the experience on paper for the benefit of his family in Canada:
I cannot possibly convey the cumulative effect of passing for hours through a liberated countryside, with the wreckage of the beaten enemy—his tanks and vehicles, his dead horses and the graves of his dead men—littering the roadside ditches, and the population, free once more, welcoming the oncoming troops with smiles and flowers and the V-sign. ...
The scene in a liberated town is quite extraordinary. The place, of course, is festooned with flags. They always have plenty of tricolours; but the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes are in short supply, and had to be homemade for the occasion. (I even saw some versions of the Canadian Red Ensign, which would scarcely have pleased the College of Heralds but must have pleased a good many Canadians.) Everyone seems to be in the street, and no one ever seems to tire of waving to the troops passing in their vehicles, who likewise never tire of waving back (particularly at the female population). The young people wave and laugh and shout; the children yell and wave flags; the mothers hold up their babies to see the troops, and wave their little paws too; the old people stand by the roadside and look happy; and the Army rolls through. ...
In the meantime great events had been taking place on the Second British Army front. The leading troops of the 30th Corps had sped northward from the bridgehead first opened at Vernon on 25 August; and early on the morning of the 31st the 11th Armoured Division burst into the Amiens area and disrupted the German plans for the defence of the line of the Somme.11 At Saleux, a few miles south-west of Amiens, they overran the headquarters of the Fifth Panzer Army and captured our old friend General Heinrich Eberbach, who had been appointed to command the reconstituted Seventh Army and was to take over the sector from the Fifth Panzer Army at noon that day.12 Valuable documents were taken at the same time. Even more useful, the bridges in Amiens itself were captured intact, although several had been prepared for demolition;13 and the way was open for a further rush to the north.
On the afternoon of the 31st, General Montgomery conferred with his two army commanders and issued new orders in the light of the rapidly developing situation. General Dempsey was reported to be sending the 11th Armoured Division down the Somme to Pont Remy and Abbeville. The Commander-in-Chief desired General Crerar to drive on that night so as to take over these places early the following day, leaving the Second Army free to push on and secure Arras and St. Pol. General Crerar told Montgomery that he would order the 2nd Canadian Corps to do this, using the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and following it up with the Polish Armoured Division, which was now north of the Seine and again becoming available for action. Crerar immediately flew to General Simonds’ headquarters
and gave him instructions accordingly.14 The main axis, he said, which should mark the left of the armoured movement, would be the Neufchâtel–Abbeville road; the 4th Division would need to “feel out” well to its right to establish contact with the Second Army.15
The assumption till now had been that the 4th Canadian Armoured Division would have “about four days” to rest in the Buchy area.16 The new orders changed all this, and in the small hours of 1 September the division moved on again, directed upon Abbeville. During the day difficulties arose when the 7th Armoured Division and the 53rd Division, in the words of the 4th Division’s General Staff diarist, “began to filter onto our centre line from the south and south-west”. The 4th Division had in fact “felt out” beyond the Army boundary.* Moreover,
* On 28 August HQ 21st Army Group laid down a boundary making Aumale inclusive to First Canadian Army but Dreuil Hamel (just west of Airaines) exclusive to it. This seems to imply a Canadian advance by secondary roads running west of Hornoy. However, on 31 August HQ 2nd Canadian Corps ordered the 4th Division to advance on an axis passing through Hornoy to Pont Remy.17 The next day the Canadian and British formations collided in the Hornoy area.
a pocket of resistance was met at Airaines, an important road-centre, and there was uncertainty as to whether the Canadians or the 7th Armoured Division should deal with it. Finally the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade by-passed Airaines to the west. Before the end of the day the 18th Armoured Car Regiment (12th Manitoba Dragoons) had reached the Somme east of Pont Remy and the 10th Infantry Brigade was coming up in rear with a view to establishing a bridgehead. In the early hours of 2 September the division reached the outskirts of Abbeville. The farther bank of the Seine was found to be held by the enemy.18
On 1 September the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division returned to Dieppe, where it had shed so much of its blood in the famous raid of 19 August 1942. It had been expected that the enemy would fight for the town, and a detailed plan had been made for an attack in which heavy bombardment by the navy and the RAF Bomber Command would precede an assault from the land side. This (Operation FUSILLADE) proved unnecessary. The leading vehicles of the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment reached the outskirts of Dieppe early in the morning of 1 September. They found that the German rear parties had departed the previous day. Hastily, this information was passed back to enable Bomber Command’s attack to be cancelled, and this was done with just twenty minutes to spare. In the course of the day the main bodies of the 2nd Division reached the town, receiving a delirious welcome from the townspeople.19 The Germans had not succeeded in destroying the port installations completely, and British engineers immediately set to work to prepare the harbour to receive shipping carrying the supplies so urgently needed by the advancing divisions. The first vessels entered on 7 September and by the end of the month the port’s daily capacity was between 6000 and 7000 tons.20
The day. after the 2nd Division liquidated its debt of 1942 at Dieppe, the 51st (Highland) Division took St. Valéry-en-Caux, where the main body of this division had been encircled and captured in June 1940. There was no opposition. On the same day the 49th Division made contact with the German outposts on the outskirts of Le Havre, and it seemed apparent that the enemy, as had been expected, held the place in strength and was determined to defend it.21
The Allies’ supply problems became steadily more difficult, as the lines of communication back to the original bridgehead lengthened. The fleets of trucks which had carried supplies to the front in the days of the bridgehead were grossly inadequate to carry them from the Rear Maintenance Area at Bayeux, from which the 21st Army Group was still being maintained, to a line north of the Somme. As Brigadier Walford, General Crerar’s senior administrative officer, said on 7 September, a 10-ton truck was now worth more than a Sherman tank.22 The seriousness of the problem was reflected in the fact that the 8th British Corps had to remain grounded in order that its transport might be used to maintain the other formations;23 in other words, the Allies’ administrative resources were now insufficient to keep all their forces fighting, and the question of priorities became urgent and, in view of its international aspects, extremely difficult. Only the possession of ports close to the battlefront could relieve the situation; and the port that could do most to support a final offensive against Germany was the great Belgian inland harbour of Antwerp, on the River Scheldt.
The Germans Lose Antwerp But Save an Army
Hitler, it will be remembered (above, page 50), had long since designated certain French ports as “fortresses” to be especially protected and defended to the last. Far back in Brittany, his orders were now being carried out at Brest, where a large American force was besieging the city*24 and did not finally capture it until 18 September.25 On the Biscay coast, Lorient, St. Nazaire, La Rochelle and some other small areas were still in German hands, contained by limited Allied forces, and were to remain so until the end or nearly the end of hostilities—a useless waste of German troops, for these ports would have been of little military value to the Allies. The same was true of the Channel Islands, where a good German infantry division languished until the end of the war.26 But in the area north of the Seine Hitler’s fortress policy made sense at this moment, and it was a great embarrassment to the Allied operations. Le Havre, Boulogne and Dunkirk were all on Hitler’s list of fortresses; and on 4 September he issued a new directive:27
Because of the breakthrough of enemy tank forces toward Antwerp, it has become very important for the further progress of the war to hold the fortresses of Boulogne and Dunkirk, the Calais defense area, Walcheren Island with Flushing harbor, the bridgehead at Antwerp, and the Albert Canal position as far as Maastricht.
For this purpose the 15th Army is to bring the garrisons of Boulogne and Dunkirk and the Calais defense area up to strength by means of full units.
The defensive strength of the fortresses is to be increased by means of additional ammunition supplies from the supplies of the 15th Army, especially anti-tank ammunition, by bringing up provisions of all kinds from the country, and by evacuating the entire population.
The commanders of the Calais defense area and of Walcheren Island receive the same authority as a fortress commander. ...
Had Hitler thought of this aspect of strategy a few days earlier, it is fair to assume that the port of Dieppe would not have been captured without a fight.
At the moment when Hitler issued this order, catastrophe was already overtaking the Germans at Antwerp. The British Second Army, meeting “negligible opposition”,28 had driven headlong northward from the Somme. On 3 September (the fifth anniversary of Britain’s declaration of war) the Guards Armoured Division, in the van of the 30th Corps, entered and captured Brussels. Both the Guards and the 11th Armoured Divisions advanced some 60 miles this day. On the afternoon of 4 September the 11th Armoured Division reached Antwerp, and the greatest port in North-West Europe was in Allied hands. The most extraordinary feature of the situation, and one which reflected the German disorganization at this stage, was the fact that the dock installations were captured almost intact.29
Field-Marshal Model had, it is true, striven to prevent this disaster. On the evening of 30 August he demanded that the Commander Armed Forces in the
* The justification advanced for this operation was, first, the fact that Brest was a threat to the sea communications with the proposed base in Quiberon Bay (above, pages 82, 83), and secondly, the fear that the large, well-commanded force in Brest would make serious trouble in the Allies’ rear if not eliminated.
Netherlands (above, page 58) should send south the 719th Infantry Division (a static coastal division) from about Dordrecht. On 2 September it slowly moved off, directed on an area east of Brussels. On the morning of the 4th, when it was still north of Antwerp, Army Group B gave orders to rush the bulk of it there to defend the city. At that moment important parts of the 347th Infantry Division were retiring from north of Brussels to Antwerp by rail, with a view to detraining there and assisting in the defence under the command of the 719th. But apparently the 719th had not yet arrived, and the trains carrying the 347th rolled on to Cappellen, seven miles north of Antwerp. An order from Army Group B at 9:15 a.m. to use civilian vehicles to rush all available naval and air force fighting men to hold the city was the last desperate, ineffective expedient. The Germans had acted too slowly and too late, and there was nobody to keep the British out of this all-important port.30 Nevertheless, it shortly became painfully apparent that though the Germans had lost Antwerp, the Allies had not gained the use of it. The city is some 50 miles from the sea; and both banks of the Scheldt below it remained in enemy hands. Fully realizing the vital importance of preventing us from using the port, the Germans now resolved to hold this area to the last extremity.
The capture of Antwerp gravely imperilled the German Fifteenth Army, which with its three corps (67th, 86th and 89th) was caught in a cul-de-sac west of the city and south of the Scheldt. On the day Antwerp fell the German C-in-C West’s headquarters diary noted,31
This advance to Antwerp has closed the ring around Fifteenth Army. A thrust to Breda must be expected. ...
A “thrust to Breda” would have cut the escape route across the Scheldt by way of Walcheren and the South Beveland isthmus. But the thrust was not made. The Fifteenth Army escaped, and its escape was a considerable Allied misfortune.
Just how this came about is not wholly clear. Intelligence summaries indicate that Allied headquarters saw what was happening.32 At this period Field-Marshal Montgomery* was deeply involved in strategic controversy with General Eisenhower (below, pages 306-10) and it may be that his eye, fixed on the distant scene, was not focussing so well on the immediate foreground. (He issued no formal directive to his armies between 3 and 14 September, though he did issue individual letters and orders.) Whatever the reason, no strong attempt was made to push north from Antwerp immediately after the city fell, when such an advance would probably have succeeded. Interference with the withdrawal was left to the air forces. The Germans on their side were feverishly active in extricating the threatened Army. Their first expedient, ordered by the C-in-C West on the evening of 4 September, was an attempt to break out eastward north of Brussels; but Hitler negatived this, it appears, and the policy adopted was to hold a bridgehead south of the Scheldt estuary, organize a strong defence of Walcheren Island, and withdraw the balance of the Fifteenth Army by way of the South Beveland peninsula.33 This was done. In constant fear that the British would drive forward from Antwerp and close the exit from South Beveland, the evacuation proceeded
* He was promoted to this rank on 1 September.
under the direction of the 89th Corps. From Breskens and Terneuzen the troops were ferried across the West Scheldt to the port of Flushing and South Beveland. Our air forces harried the movement but could not stop it. By 23 September the operation was complete. In its final report the 89th Corps computed that from 4 September to that date 86,100 men, 616 guns, 6200 horses and 6200 vehicles had been moved across the Scheldt to fight again for Hitler.34
On the day on which Antwerp fell the German command in the west was reorganized. In this desperate hour Hitler turned again to the old field marshal whom he had dismissed in July, and von Rundstedt resumed the appointment of Commander-in-Chief West, with headquarters now at Coblenz, where he arrived on the evening of 5 September. Model remained in command of Army Group B. Simultaneously the First Parachute Army, commanded by Colonel-General Kurt Student, which had been slated for the Nancy area, was ordered instead to take over the Antwerp-Albert Canal sector, with the Fifteenth Army on its right and the Seventh (commanding the forces formerly under the Fifth Panzer Army) on its left.35
A Difficulty with the C-in-C
At the beginning of September General Crerar had his only serious difficulty during the campaign with the Commander-in-Chief of the 21st Army Group. Apart from other circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the trouble should have arisen at this particular moment. Field-Marshal Montgomery had just ceased to be the de facto ground commander of the Allied forces. He found himself in disagreement both with the new command organization set up by General Eisenhower and with Eisenhower’s conception of the next phase of operations; and he was accordingly deeply involved in a controversy with the Supreme Commander which was to go on for several weeks.
The Crerar-Montgomery difficulties began on 2 September. On the morning of the 1st, presumably as a result of his consultation with General Crerar the previous day, General Simonds gave his divisional commanders a directive36 for continuance of the pursuit on the axis Abbeville–St. Omer–Ypres. On reaching the line of the Somme, the Polish Armoured Division was to advance through Hesdin–St. Omer–Ypres, keeping in touch with the armoured formations of the Second British Army on its right. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on reaching Le Tréport would destroy or capture all enemy in the triangle Le Tréport–St. Valéry-sur-Somme–Abbeville and continue to advance up the coast on the axis Abbeville–Montreuil–Boulogne–Calais–Dunkirk. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was to reorganize east of Abbeville, while the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division would reorganize in the Dieppe area “ready to pass through 3 Cdn Inf Div when ordered”; both these divisions were thus to have a period of rest.
This arrangement was not acceptable to Montgomery. On the evening of 2 September he signalled Crerar:37
PERSONAL for ARMY COMMANDER from C in C.
Second Army are now positioned near the Belgian frontier and will go through towards Brussels tomorrow. IT IS VERY necessary that your two Armd Divs should push forward with all speed towards St Omer and beyond. NOT repeat NOT consider this the time for any div to halt for maintenance. Push on quickly.
General Crerar, evidently considering that a matter of some Canadian importance was at stake, and perhaps somewhat nettled by the fact that the arrangement by which the British armour was to move down the Somme to Abbeville (above, page 298) had not been carried out, replied:38
PERSONAL for C in C from CDN ARMY COMD.
...Delighted to learn that Second Army is now positioned near Belgian frontier but would advise you that until late this afternoon Second Army troops have not been within five miles Abbeville and that all bridges R Somme NE [?NW] Picquigny blown with enemy in considerable strength holding North bank. With assistance flank attack 4 Brit Armd Bde from direction Picquigny and Polish Armd Div attacking Abbeville across R Somme from South Simonds hoped secure crossing tonight.
NOT a case of more divs on line R Somme but of securing at least one main route crossing of river. In any event 2 Cdn Inf Div bns down to average strength 525 and in my opinion a forty-eight hour halt quite essential in order it can absorb approx one thousand reinforcements arriving today.
You can be assured that there is no lack of push or of rational speed Cdn Army. St Omer and beyond will be reached without any avoidable delay.
In these circumstances a relatively small matter the next day led to what may be called a tiff. It may be best to describe it in some detail.
On 3 September the 2nd Division held ceremonial observances at Dieppe, General Crerar being present on the invitation of the divisional commander. In the morning religious services were held in the cemetery where the Canadians who fell in the 1942 raid were buried; and early in the afternoon there was a formal march-past of most of the Division’s formations and units. General Crerar took the salute. On the afternoon of 2 September Crerar had received a message from Montgomery instructing him to meet him at 1:00 p.m. the next day at the tactical headquarters of the Second Army. As its phrasing indicated a personal meeting rather than a formal conference, and as no new operational situation had arisen on the Canadian Army front since his last meeting with the C-in-C on the afternoon of the 1st, Crerar replied as follows:
Unless operational situation requires my arrival Tac Brit Army at 1300 hrs tomorrow would appreciate if meeting could take place later say 1700 hrs. Have arranged be present formal religious service and parade elements 2 Cdn Inf Div at Dieppe commencing about noon tomorrow and from Canadian point of view desirable I should do so. Will however conform your wishes. Advice required.
Early next morning Crerar left his headquarters to meet Simonds to discuss future operations. There had so far been no message from the C-in-C. He therefore instructed his Chief of Staff to communicate to 2nd Corps headquarters by radio telephone, in clear, the gist of any reply which might be received. In the event of radio being unreliable, the message would be sent by an aircraft.
Up to the moment of his leaving 2nd Corps by air for Dieppe, Crerar had still received no reply. He therefore decided to go on with his own arrangements,
assuming that Montgomery had met his request for a change in the hour of the meeting. However, at approximately 2:40 p.m., when the troops of the 2nd Division were about to commence their “march-past” in Dieppe, Crerar was handed a message from his Chief of Staff originating at 1:30 p.m. to the effect that the C-in-C had advised that it was essential he attend the meeting at 1:00 p.m. As it was no longer possible to comply, he completed his part in the Dieppe ceremonial and then flew to Tactical Headquarters Second Army. The meeting was long over. It turned out to have been a formal conference of the Commanders-in-Chief of the 21st and 12th Army Groups with the commanders of the First US and Second British Armies, with himself supposed to be present. Crerar recorded next day that he had learned from General Dempsey that “apart from the breach in the formality, no operational disadvantages had resulted, as the discussion centered entirely on questions concerning actions and reactions of First US Army and Second Brit Army in the immediate and longer-term future”. Having seen Dempsey, he drove to Field-Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters a couple of miles away and had an interview with Montgomery in his caravan, which Crerar recorded as follows:39
On reaching the caravan, the Field Marshal addressed me abruptly, asking me why I had not turned up at the meeting, in accordance with his instructions. I kept myself under control and briefly, with occasional interruptions, gave him the explanation which I have recorded in more detail above. The Cin-C intimated that he was not interested in my explanation—that the Canadian aspect of the Dieppe ceremonial was of no importance compared to getting on with the war, that he had checked through his signals and determined that my Tac HQ had received a message from him at 0615 hrs that morning, instructing me to keep the appointment and that, even if I had not received it, then in default of other agreed arrangements, I should have made it my business to be present.
I replied to the C-in-C that I could not accept this attitude and judgment on his part. I had carried out my responsibilities as one of his two Army Comds, and as the Cdn Army Comd, in what I considered to be a reasonable and intelligent way, in the light of the situation as I knew it, or appreciated it. I had found him, in the past, reasonable in his treatment of me and I had assumed that this situation would continue to prevail. The request in my message, for postponement of the hour of our meeting, had been fully explanatory and, I thought, tactful. I had thought it would have been acceptable to him. I had, as previously explained, a definite responsibility to my Government and country which, at times, might run counter to his own wishes. There was a powerful Canadian reason why I should have been present with 2 Cdn Inf Div at Dieppe that day. In fact, there were 800 reasons-the Canadian dead buried at Dieppe cemetery. I went on to say that he should realise, by our considerable association, that I was neither self-opinionated, nor unreasonable, but that, also, I would never consent to be “pushed about” by anyone, in a manner, or direction, which I knew to be wrong.
The Field Marshal reiterated that I had failed to comply with an instruction issued by him and that such situation could only result in his decision that our ways must part. I replied that I assumed he would at once take this up through higher channels and that, I, in turn, would at once report the situation to my Government.
At this point Montgomery, to Crerar’s surprise, said that the incident was now closed. The Army Commander replied that he did not want it closed and “desired that it be properly ventilated through official channels”. After some further discussion, Montgomery again said that he wished to consider the matter closed and proceeded to give Crerar the gist of what had happened at the
conference, none of which had any direct bearing on the operations previously assigned to the First Canadian Army. The final paragraph of General Crerar’s memorandum of the affair runs as follows:
In conclusion, I must state that I received the impression, at the commencement of the interview, that the C-in-C was out to eliminate, forcefully, from my mind that I had any other responsibilities than to him. The Canadian ceremony at Dieppe was not of his ordering, nor to his liking. It had been the cause of an interference with an instruction which he had separately issued to me-to meet him at a certain time and place. As the interview proceeded, and he found that I would not retreat from the stand I had taken-that I had a responsibility to Canada as well as to the C-in-C-he decided to “consider the matter closed”. It was not a willing decision, nor one that I can assume will be maintained. However, though our relations have obviously been strained, I trust that the situation is temporary and I shall do what I can to ease them, though without departing from what I consider it my duty to do, or not to do, in my capacity as a Canadian.
Montgomery’s displeasure was doubtless reflected in a passage in his daily report to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff sent this day to the effect that the First Canadian Army’s operations since crossing the Seine had been “badly handled and very slow”.40 However, a few days later, when Crerar sent him details of the handling of his message (indicating that it was not received at Tactical HQ First Canadian Army until 10:20 a.m. on the 3rd and was further delayed by deciphering and being passed on to Main HQ where the Chief of Staff dealt with it), Montgomery wrote him a conciliatory note:41
I am sorry I was a bit rude the other day, and somewhat out-spoken. I was annoyed that no one came to a very important conference.
But forget about it—and let us get on with the war.
It was my fault.
There the matter ended, though it seems likely that coolness persisted until General Crerar’s departure for England for medical treatment towards the end of the month (below, page 373). There is some reason to believe that at this period Montgomery would have welcomed a permanent change in the command of the Army. However, when Crerar returned to his command the affair had apparently been forgotten. Relations between the two commanders were unruffled thereafter to the end of the campaign.
The Debate on Strategy
It is now necessary to summarize the controversy between Eisenhower and Montgomery over strategic policy after the crossing of the Seine. This affected many aspects of the operations, including those of the First Canadian Army, during the autumn; and it is convenient, even at the expense of some trifling with chronology, to tell at this point the whole story of the discussions during August and September. Much has already been written about it;* and an attempt will be made here merely to outline the essentials of the debate.
* It is worth noting that the late Chester Wilmot, the author of The Struggle for Europe (London, 1952), had the advantage of some access to the papers of Field-Marshal Lord Montgomery. Large excerpts from them have since been published in the Field-Marshal’s Memoirs (London, 1958). Forrest C. Pogue, The Supreme Command, contains large quotations from General Eisenhower’s personal files.
Montgomery’s conception of the operations north of the Seine took shape in his mind, it would seem, during the final stages of the Battle of Falaise. It is interesting that on 18 August, before broaching the matter to Eisenhower, he referred his ideas to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. His proposal was that after crossing the Seine, “12 and 21 Army Groups should keep together as a solid mass of some 40 divisions which would be so strong that it need fear nothing”. (It is a fair assumption that Montgomery meant that it would “keep together” under his own command.) This force would move northwards with the 21st Army Group on the left flank, clear the Channel coast, the Pas de Calais and West Flanders and secure Antwerp. The American armies would move with their right flank on the Ardennes directed upon Brussels, Aachen and Cologne. The initial object, apart from destroying the German forces on the coast, would be to establish a powerful air force in Belgium, while the movement would also serve to get the enemy out of V-1 or V-2 range of England (see below, pages 354-5). Montgomery had already discussed this with General Bradley and believed he had his entire agreement. In his notes given to Bradley he emphasized the importance of being able to “seize the Ruhr quickly”; this objective does not seem to have been mentioned in the communication to Brooke. The latter concurred immediately. Montgomery accordingly proceeded to put his plans before Eisenhower.42
On 3 May, over a month before D Day, Eisenhower’s planners at SHAEF had outlined a plan of operations for the phase which had now been reached.* They recognized Berlin as the “ultimate goal”, but considered it “too far East to be the objective of a campaign in the West”. They set their eyes on the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany, which, as we shall see, Montgomery also considered the essential point. Fearing however that an advance by a single route would lead to “a head-on collision with the main enemy forces on a narrow, easily defended front with no room for manoeuvre and little opportunity for the use of our armour”, they recommended “a broad front both North and South of the Ardennes”, “on two mutually supporting axes”. The main advance, they thought, should be along the line Amiens–Maubeuge–Liège-the Ruhr, with a subsidiary attack far south of the Ruhr on the line Verdun–Metz.43
In the contention that now took place Eisenhower in general adhered to this policy proposed by his planners before the invasion. Montgomery, on the other hand, argued that the circumstances which had now arisen—the Germans’ disorganization resulting from their defeat in Normandy—offered an opportunity for a concentrated attack on a relatively narrow front. As we have already seen, the administrative situation made it impossible, at the beginning of September, to attack with all the available Allied forces simultaneously; there was simply not enough gasoline to be had at the front to move their vehicles. Under these conditions, Eisenhower was further embarrassed by demands from his American subordinates that the available resources should be allotted to their areas to enable them to carry the battle forward into Germany. At the same time, American
* All the signatures on this paper are those of British officers: Captain P. N. Walter, RN; Brigadier K. G. McLean; and Group Captain H. P. Broad.
public opinion, as Eisenhower seems to have let Montgomery know, would have made it difficult for him either to disregard these American demands or to continue the subordination of Bradley to Montgomery.44 Therefore the argument could scarcely be settled merely on the military merits of the case.
On 23 August, after the Gap battle ended, Montgomery and Eisenhower had a very long discussion. That morning, the former tells us, he had flown to Bradley’s headquarters and had been shaken to find that Bradley had changed his mind and no longer supported his “single thrust” plan. (Bradley says nothing of this in his own book.) Montgomery, looking ahead to the Ruhr, argued to Eisenhower that in the present state of supply it was vital to concentrate upon one thrust, delivered by the main mass of the Allied armies, and put all available resources behind it. Eisenhower, while recognizing the importance of clearing the Channel coast, establishing air bases in Belgium and seizing the Ruhr, apparently showed some desire to split the force and attack the Saar also. Montgomery told him that to sweep through the Pas de Calais to Antwerp he would need an entire US Army moving on his right flank, and Eisenhower reluctantly agreed. The question of command was also discussed at this meeting. Montgomery argued for a continuation of the arrangement by which he functioned as ground commander, and even offered to serve under Bradley if the Supreme Commander preferred to give the ground command to the latter. The furthest Eisenhower would go, however, was to agree that there must be one commander to coordinate and control the left flank operations into Belgium. The arrangements previously made (above, page 20) would be carried out; on 1 September Eisenhower would take over direct control of the ground forces.45
On 24 August Eisenhower wrote Montgomery confirming the previous day’s conversation. This forecast the issuance of a directive giving Montgomery’s Army Group the task of operating north-east, seizing the Pas de Calais and airfields in Belgium, and “pushing forward to get a secure base at Antwerp”; its eventual mission would be “to advance eastward on the Ruhr”. Bradley’s Army Group was to thrust forward on its own left, its “principal offensive mission” for the moment being to support Montgomery in the attainment of his objectives. However, Bradley was also “to begin building up, out of the incoming forces, the necessary strength to advance eastward from Paris towards Metz”. Montgomery was given authority to effect “the necessary operational co-ordination” between his forces and Bradley’s left wing; the details were to be worked out between Montgomery and Bradley. Eisenhower ended by urging all possible “speed in execution”.46 This letter was the basis of Field-Marshal Montgomery’s own directive of 26 August (above, page 282). On 24 August Eisenhower sent the Chief of Staff of the
US Army a letter explaining what he was doing. He said he had temporarily changed his basic plan for attacking both north-east and east, to help Montgomery seize tremendously important objectives. He considered this necessary, even though it interfered with his desire to push eastward through Metz, because the 21st Army Group lacked the strength for the task.47 On the same day General Eisenhower issued his formal directive on command.48 This stated that the 21st Army Group was to be redesignated “Northern Group
of Armies” and the 12th Army Group “Central Group of Armies”. (It may be noted that Montgomery nevertheless continued to refer to his command as the 21st Army Group.) The essential paragraph was the following:
2. The Commanders-in-Chief, Northern and Central Groups of Armies, will come under the direct operational command of the Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force effective 0200 hours 1 September 1944.
Eisenhower had made an important concession to Montgomery, though his basic policy was still that recommended by his planners in May, and he was under pressure from his American subordinates. By 2 September Patton’s army was stopped on the Meuse for want of gasoline. On that day, at a conference with Generals Bradley, Hodges and Patton, Eisenhower was (according to Patton) “finally persuaded” to approve a plan for an advance by the Third Army and one corps of the First towards Mannheim, Frankfurt and Coblenz. He emphasized however that this drive would depend on the success of the northern thrust, which had priority on supplies.49 Montgomery heard of the Frankfurt plan at the meeting on 3 September attended by Bradley, Dempsey and Hodges which Crerar missed (above, page 305); he disliked it intensely. On 4 September General Eisenhower issued a directive.50 This defined the task of the Northern Group of Armies and that part of the Central Group operating north-west of the Ardennes as “to secure Antwerp, breach the sector of the Siegfried Line covering the Ruhr and then seize the Ruhr”. The mission of the balance of the Central Group was, in part, “To occupy the sector of the Siegfried Line covering the Saar and then to seize Frankfurt”. Eisenhower added, “It is important that this operation should start as soon as possible, in order to forestall the enemy in this sector, but troops of Central Group of Armies operating against the Ruhr north-west of the Ardennes must first be adequately supported.”
This was the day Antwerp fell. At 8:55 p.m. that night, when he knew that Antwerp was in Allied hands* but had not yet received the foregoing directive, Montgomery signed a strong telegram to the Supreme Commander. He wrote: “I consider we have now reached a stage where one really powerful and full-blooded thrust towards Berlin is likely to get there and thus end the German war.” There were not enough maintenance resources for two strong thrusts; that selected must have all the resources it needed “without any qualification”. The thrust likely to give the best and quickest results was the northern one via the Ruhr. To attempt a compromise solution would “prolong the war”.51
On 5 September Eisenhower replied agreeing with the conception of a powerful drive towards Berlin, but not “at this moment to the exclusion of all other maneuver”. No “reallocation of existing resources”, he said, would be adequate to sustain a thrust to Berlin. He considered that the success so far gained should be exploited by crossing the Rhine on a wide front and seizing “the Saar and Ruhr”. This he intended to do with all speed. In the meantime the Allies would be opening the ports of Le Havre and Antwerp, which were essential to sustain a powerful thrust deep into Germany, and would be available to support either
* It cannot have been clear to Montgomery at this moment that we were likely to be denied the use of the port for a long period. But he was obviously not counting on it as an immediate resource.
a thrust at the Ruhr or one at the Saar. But he was still giving priority to the Ruhr and the northern line.52
The lines were drawn; the controversy proceeded. Eisenhower still adhered, essentially, to his staff’s “original conception”, as indeed he wrote in a memorandum for record on 5 September. Montgomery complained on the 9th that he could not see that the northern route was getting priority in practice; the 19th US Corps on the First US Army’s left flank, which was supposed to be cooperating with Montgomery, was in fact unable to advance properly through lack of petrol.53 The administrative pinch was now being very seriously felt, and it was clear that the port of Antwerp was not going to be immediately available. On 6 September Montgomery’s Chief of Staff pointed out to him that the Germans probably intended to hold the Channel ports as long as they could and added that the immediate opening of some port north of Dieppe, preferably Boulogne, was essential for the rapid development of Montgomery’s plans, especially as this would permit of laying a cross-Channel petrol pipeline to the Pas de Calais. He added, “Hope Crerar realizes urgency of matter. Am taking up through staff channels.” At this time General Dempsey estimated that the maximum force that could be maintained forward of the line Louvain–Brussels was only one corps of three divisions, plus the airborne forces, pending the opening of a good port in full working order.
After careful consideration, the British Commander-in-Chief came to the conclusion that it would be possible to advance to Berlin on the basis of the ports of Dieppe, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais, and in addition 3000 tons of cargo per day through Le Havre. With “one good Pas de Calais port”, 1000 tons per day airlift, and an additional allotment of motor transport, he calculated that it would be possible to reach the “Münster triangle”, meaning presumably the area Rheine–Osnabrück–Münster. This was on 9 September. It is evident that the Field Marshal now believed that he could support a thrust to the Ruhr, and even to Berlin, without the use of Antwerp; a note on his intentions set down this day by his Brigadier General Staff (Operations), which records the foregoing calculations, assigns to the reduction of the islands blocking the port “last priority” among the tasks of First Canadian Army.54
The Failure at Arnhem
On 7 and 9 September, Montgomery reported to Eisenhower that even with a Pas de Calais port working he would be unable to get over the Rhine without additional administrative assistance. On the 8th, Eisenhower told him again, “we must push up as soon as possible all along the front”.55 On the 10th Eisenhower and Montgomery met for the first time since 26 August (the Supreme Commander had been immobilized for some days, at his headquarters back at Granville in Normandy, with a wrenched knee). In Eisenhower’s plane at Brussels airfield the two men again went over the ground as before—single thrust in the north versus broad front. Accounts of this meeting vary somewhat. According to one version56 it was somewhat acrimonious. Although Montgomery does not recall it, the Supreme Commander seems to
have emphasized the importance of opening Antwerp-a project which as we have seen had at this moment a low priority in Montgomery’s mind. Nevertheless Eisenhower authorized him to defer this in favour of an immediate attempt to seize a bridgehead across the Rhine.57 Operation COMET, a plan to get crossings over the Lower Rhine by dropping an airborne force of one and a half divisions in the Arnhem–Nijmegen area, was revised and enlarged under the new name MARKET-GARDEN. It was now proposed to use the bulk of the First Allied Airborne Army to lay a “carpet” across the rivers and canals in the southern Netherlands. Along this corridor the 30th Corps of the Second Army would advance to secure the crossings seized by the airborne troops, the most important being those across the Maas at Grave and the two main branches of the Rhine, the Waal at Nijmegen and the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. If the operation was successful, it would turn the Siegfried Line and place the Allies in an excellent position to attack the north side of the Ruhr and advance eastward across the North German Plain.
The target date for the operation was the night of 15-16 September. But on 11 September Montgomery told Eisenhower that, without the priority over other operations which he had been refused, MARKET-GARDEN could not take place before 23 September at the earliest and possibly the 26th. This had the desired effect. The Supreme Commander on 12 September sent his Chief of Staff to see Montgomery and promised him the priority which he had hitherto sought in vain. He was told that three newly-landed American divisions would be “grounded” to give extra maintenance to his Army Group; the main maintenance of the 12th Army Group was to be given to the First US Army on Montgomery’s right; this Army was to cooperate closely with him, and he was to be allowed to deal direct with General Hodges. Montgomery’s elation at these events was reflected in a letter which he sent to General Crerar on 13 September:
Since last meeting you, we have had a great victory with SHAEF, and the main weight of maintenance is now to be diverted to the northward thrust against the Ruhr.58
MARKET-GARDEN was no doubt in some degree a compromise operation. The Supreme Commander wrote after the war that it was “merely an incident and extension of our eastward rush to the line we needed for temporary security”. It met Montgomery’s demand for a strong penetrating operation in the north without, presumably, too greatly arousing the ire of Bradley and Patton.* But at the time Montgomery, as his letter to Crerar shows, expected great things from it. On the evening of 12 September he signalled the War Office that though he felt somewhat overcome by the long debate, he hoped that the war would now be won reasonably quickly. And Eisenhower’s quick response to Montgomery’s statement that the operation would have to be postponed unless more resources were made available suggests that the Supreme Commander himself may have had larger and higher hopes at that moment than he recalled when writing his reminiscences.59
* Patton in his War as I Knew It states that, apparently on 17 September, Bradley telephoned him to say that Montgomery wanted the American troops stopped in order to favour his own advance. Patton writes, “In order to avoid such an eventuality, it was evident that the Third Army should get deeply involved at once, so I asked Bradley not to call me until after dark on the nineteenth.” It was a peculiar procedure, involving, if Patton’s account is accurate, disloyalty to the Supreme Commander’s plans. But there is no evidence that it had any effect on the Arnhem operation.
Montgomery’s directive of 14 September60 gives the pattern of the operation as he conceived it. Having made good the corridor to Arnhem, the Second Army would establish itself in strength in the area between Arnhem and Zwolle, facing east, with bridgeheads on the east bank of the River Ijssel. Thence it would be prepared to advance east to the area Rheine–Osnabrück–Hamm–Münster, and direct a strong thrust “southwards along the eastern face of the Ruhr”. The plan envisaged an eastward advance upon Bonn and Cologne by the First US Army, which would then establish a bridgehead across the Rhine and advance “eastwards round the south face of the Ruhr” to join hands with the Second Army.
Leaving aside for the moment the further operations of First Canadian Army, we may briefly note here the course and fate of Operation MARKET-GARDEN. It duly went in on 17 September, but the complete victory for which the Allied commanders were hoping did not materialize.
In the airborne (MARKET) phase, the 1st British Airborne Corps, under Lieut.-General F. A. M. Browning, was to employ three divisions on 17 September to secure the vital bridges. The 101st US Airborne Division would seize Eindhoven and canal crossings to the north; the 82nd US Airborne Division would be directed upon the bridges across the Maas at Grave and the Waal at Nijmegen; while the 1st British Airborne Division (with the Polish Parachute Brigade under command) was to capture the most northerly bridges, those across the Neder Rijn at Arnhem. These operations were to be carried out under the overall command of Second British Army, which also supplied the 30th British Corps for the ground (GARDEN) phase. Lieut.-General Horrocks’ spearhead, the Guards Armoured Division, would lunge north from a small bridgehead over the Meuse–Escaut Canal which had been obtained on 8 September. It was to link up successively with the airborne formations along the road Eindhoven–Arnhem. Field-Marshal Montgomery’s directive ordered that the ground operation would be “rapid and violent, and without regard to what is happening on the flanks”.
The unfortunate result of the operation has led to stories that it was betrayed to the Germans. If it really was betrayed, the Germans apparently did not believe the traitor or act upon the information they received from him; for their records do not reflect any precautionary troop movements immediately before the operation.*61 The situation is best summarized in the “experience report” on the operation issued by the German Army Group B on 1 October:62
* Elements of the 2nd and 116th Panzer and the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions no longer fit for action were ordered to the area Venlo–Arnhem–’s-Hertogenbosch, for rehabilitation, as early as 3 September, and HQ 2nd SS Panzer Corps to Eindhoven, to help supervise the rehabilitation operation, on 5 September. According to Lt.-Col. Oreste Pinto (Spycatcher, ed. London, 1955) the operation was betrayed to the Germans on 15 September by the treacherous Resistance leader Christian Lindemans, known as KING KONG. There were no important changes in the German dispositions on or after 15 September, and none of the numerous Army Group B orders and Intelligence documents available contain even the remotest indication that an airborne landing was expected in the MARKET-GARDEN area. Incidentally, Pinto says that “the Canadians” sent Lindemans through the lines on the mission (to prepare the Resistance to cooperate in the coming operation) during which he supposedly warned the enemy. This is untrue. First Canadian Army had no responsibility for MARKET-GARDEN or (at this time) for the area where it took place. If anybody sent Lindemans through the lines, it was not “the Canadians”.
The enemy achieved surprise. Preparatory action by the air forces began about three hours before the landing in the form of bombing attacks against flak positions. The attacks did not greatly exceed the normal volume of enemy air activity. Air attacks on flak at Arnhem were taken as attempts to destroy bridges. ...
For airlandings the enemy selects sparsely held sectors. The 2nd SS Panzer Corps’ being in process of rehabilitation [near Arnhem] was a bad surprise for him. Despite the best contacts with agents his intelligence service failed him in this case.
The Allied intelligence service seems in fact to have got the necessary information just too late. Keeping track of enemy formations out of the line was SHAEF’s job. A SHAEF intelligence summary, itself undated but covering the week ending 16 September and therefore probably issued on the 17th, contains maps showing the 2nd SS Panzer and the 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions as “unlocated”, but its text observes, “ 9 SS Panzer Division, and with it presumably 10, has been reported as withdrawing altogether to the Arnhem area of Holland: there they will probably both collect some new tanks from the depot reported in the area of Cleves”.63 Apparently this report did not reach the airborne formations before the drop.64 Further pieces of good fortune for the Germans were the facts that Army Group B had its own headquarters on the western outskirts of Arnhem (which meant that the energetic Field-Marshal Model was on the spot to organize immediate counter-measures) and that General Student received a captured copy of an Allied operation order at a very early stage.65
The first drops took place at 1:00 p.m. on the 17th; the Guards Armoured Division moved at 2:35 p.m. Almost from the beginning the 30th Corps advance was slower than had been hoped for. Eindhoven fell to the 101st Airborne Division on 18 September, and on the same day the Guards linked up with them and also with the men of the 82nd Division who had captured the Grave bridge intact; but the Nijmegen bridges were captured (likewise intact) by a dashing joint Anglo-American attack only on the 20th. The Germans were soon attacking the flanks of the narrow corridor along which the 30th Corps was advancing, and cut it more than once for considerable periods; they also brought troops into the Nijmegen area to contest the advance to Arnhem. The Guards Armoured Division was stopped; the 43rd Infantry Division went in on 22 September and likewise made slow progress.
The epic nine-day struggle at Arnhem itself was watched by the free world in breathless anxiety. A detachment of the 1st Airborne Division seized the north end of the road bridge and held out there most gallantly until 21 September. The situation of the main body of the division west of Arnhem became steadily worse. Bad communications prevented its plight from being known for a considerable time; bad flying weather hampered the arrival of reinforcements and re-supply by air, while at the same time reducing the tactical air support that could be given the division. Most of the Polish Parachute Brigade was finally dropped on the 21st south of the Neder Rijn opposite the Airborne Division’s position. A few Poles and some men of the 43rd Division crossed the river on the nights of the 23rd–24th and 24th–25th, but no effective contact was made between the 30th Corps and the airborne troops. On the morning of 25 September Field-Marshal Montgomery
decided to withdraw what was left of the 1st Airborne Division, and this was done that night under cover of a programme fired by the artillery of the 30th Corps.66
The only Canadian units involved in the Arnhem operation belonged to the First Canadian Army Troops Engineers. The 20th and 23rd Field Companies RCE joined with the 260th and 553rd Field Companies RE in ferrying the airborne troops back across the Neder Rijn on the night of the 25th–26th. The Canadians used stormboats, the RE, assault boats.* In dismal weather (which nevertheless helped to conceal their movements) the sappers brought their craft forward over difficult routes to the river’s edge opposite the British bridgehead. All through the night the boats shuttled back and forth across the wide stream in driving rain, bringing exhausted survivors to safety under constant machine-gun and mortar fire.
When daylight came the machine-guns up on the hill above the bridgehead rained a murderous hail of bullets on those craft which were still operating, but the downward angle of the fire was much less effective than it would have been had the guns been in position to make more horizontal sweeps. Mortar and 88 mm fire fell everywhere.67
The 23rd Field Company worked at a site north-east of the village of Driel. Very few soldiers came down to embark at the point farther west to which the 20th had been allotted. When the evacuation ended, about 2400 men had been ferried back, most of them apparently in the stormboats of the 23rd. This company had five killed and three wounded. Among the men it brought out was Major-General R. E. Urquhart, the GOC 1st Airborne Division. The company commander, Major M. L. Tucker, subsequently received the DSO, mainly for this night’s work on the Neder Rijn.68
Although the bridgehead across the Neder Rijn was not made good, MARKET-GARDEN secured objectives of considerable value to later operations. The crossings over the Maas and the Waal were firmly in our hands and, as the Supreme Commander afterwards observed, “the watershed between the two was to serve as a valuable corridor for a later advance to the Rhine”. But, as it turned out, the only hope of capturing the Ruhr in 1944 was lost with the Arnhem bridgehead.
While the desperate struggle at Arnhem ran its course, Eisenhower and Montgomery were continuing their strategic debate. On 15 September the Supreme Commander wrote his three Army Group Commanders asking their views on the best route or routes to be pursued into Germany. He now designated Berlin as “the main prize”. “There is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind”, he wrote, “that we should concentrate all our energies and resources on a rapid thrust to Berlin.” Montgomery made the reply which might have been expected: “I consider that the best objective is the Ruhr, and thence on to Berlin by the northern route.” He believed that this advance could be carried out by the 21st Army Group plus the First US Army of nine divisions; but such a force “must have everything it needed in the maintenance line; other Armies would do the best they could with what was left over”. General Bradley, on the other hand, argued for the old SHAEF plan, with eastward drives on two axes. On 20 September General Eisenhower, while
* Stormboats were wooden craft propelled by outboard motors; assault boats were smaller, had collapsible canvas sides, and were paddled.
accepting the Ruhr–Berlin axis for the main offensive into Germany, rejected Montgomery’s proposal for stopping all troops except the 21st Army Group and the First US Army to support, as he put it, “one single knife-like drive toward Berlin”. He wrote: “What I do believe is that we must marshal our strength up along the western borders of Germany, to the Rhine if possible, ensure adequate maintenance by getting Antwerp to working at full blast at the earliest possible moment and then carry out the drive you suggest.”
On 21 September Montgomery sent a very strong message again dissenting from this view:
I would say that the right flank of 12 Army Group should be given a very direct order to halt and if this order is not obeyed we shall get into greater difficulties. The net result of the matter in my opinion is that if you want to get the Ruhr you will have to put every single thing into the left hook and stop everything else. It is my opinion that if this is not done you will not get the Ruhr. Your very great friend,
On the 22nd Eisenhower replied that though he had not agreed with Montgomery’s belief in the possibility of a single thrust straight through to Berlin, he fully agreed with him about the immediate objective, the Ruhr. He concluded:
No one is more anxious than I to get to the Ruhr quickly. It is for the campaign from there onward deep into the heart of Germany for which [sic] I insist all other troops must be in position to support the main drive. The main drive must logically go by the North. It is because I am anxious to organize that final drive quickly upon the capture of the Ruhr that I insist upon the importance of Antwerp. As I have told you I am prepared to give you everything for the capture of the approaches to Antwerp, including all the air forces and anything else you can support. Warm regard,
On 22 September, when there was still some hope of holding the Arnhem bridgehead, General Eisenhower held a conference of his chief subordinates at Versailles. Field-Marshal Montgomery was not present; he sent his Chief of Staff to represent him. During the conference Eisenhower asked that all concerned distinguish clearly between the logistical requirements for the immediate objectives, including seizing the Ruhr and breaching the Siegfried Line, and those for the final drive on Berlin. He said also that he required “general acceptance of the fact that the possession of an additional major deep-water port on our north flank was an indispensable prerequisite for a final drive deep into Germany”. The conference agreed that the main effort of the present phase of operations was the envelopment of the Ruhr from the north, by the 21st Army Group supported by the First Army. The result was a halt on General Patton’s front during October (below, page 386). General de Guingand considered these decisions completely satisfactory.69 In fact, however, the debate was not yet over. The failure of the Arnhem operation inevitably involved a reconsideration of plans. The final phase of the controversy may best be considered in connection with the operations to open the port of Antwerp (below, pages 386-90); but at this point it is worth while to attempt some commentary upon the issues debated in August and September.
It is interesting to compare the methods followed by Montgomery and Eisenhower. They reflected differences in the two men as individuals and also differences in the approach of two national armies to problems of command.
Montgomery was a “lone wolf” and a thinking machine. He lived and worked
in isolation at a relatively small Tactical Headquarters with his personal staff, including the team of liaison officers who kept him in touch with the operations of the formations under his command. His Chief of Staff lived at Main Headquarters farther in rear. Montgomery considered, and in this he followed the best British pattern, that a commander should make his own plans. He himself wrote at the end of the campaign,70
No officer whose daily life is spent in considering details, or who has not time for quiet thought and reflection, can make a sound plan of battle on a high level or conduct large-scale operations efficiently. It is for this reason that the plan must always be made by the commander and NOT by his staff.
Thus in Montgomery’s view it was the most essential function of a high commander to produce strategic ideas. It was the function of his staff to work out the details when he had provided them with the outline. He has recently confirmed, what every student of his methods of command had suspected, that the directives which are quoted in this book were all of his own writing.71
Eisenhower, it is evident, worked rather differently. He did not isolate himself as much as Montgomery; nor were his strategic plans personally his own in the same degree. He was primarily the leader of an efficient team. He appears to have depended on his staff more than Montgomery did. The manner in which, during the long controversy that has been described, he stood by a plan produced by the SHAEF planning staff months before, at a time when the course of the campaign could not be foreseen in detail, is in striking contrast with the British commander’s procedure. Eisenhower once expressed his admiration for General George C. Marshall’s capacity for weighing issues and arriving at a “rocklike decision”; he felt that in this respect Marshall was superior to his British “opposite number”, Brooke.72 The Americans seem to have felt, in general, that it was particularly necessary to be “rocklike” in strategic discussions with the British. Indeed, there is almost a note of apology in the Supreme Commander’s letter to Marshall (above, page 308) explaining that he has temporarily changed his basic plan to serve Montgomery’s needs. If the historian may express a humble personal view, the flexible and empiric approach favoured by the British seems rather more likely to produce good military results as a general rule. Yet it by no means follows from the mere fact that the SHAEF plan had been made so long before that it was necessarily wrong. The issue must be considered on its merits.
Montgomery’s plans for action north of the Seine as he first formulated them, rather tentatively, in mid-August, would probably have produced victory in 1944 if it had been possible to put them literally into practice at that moment. He then envisaged, we have seen, a concentrated drive north-east by a body of some 40 divisions presumably commanded by himself. Such a force, directed by the victor of the Battle of Normandy, the ablest senior commander and—with the single possible exception of Patton—the most dynamic senior leader available to the Allies in the north-western theatre, the Germans could not have hoped to resist successfully with the forces they possessed at the end of August. But military economics, as represented in the formidable supply difficulties of this period, and
military politics, reflected in the demands of American public opinion and of Eisenhower’s strong-minded American subordinates, both made. this conception impracticable. It was out of the question to maintain 40 divisions simultaneously in action. In the American view it was equally out of the question to retain Montgomery in command of the ground forces; and the American view prevailed.
To assess the question of “broad front” versus “full-blooded thrust”, in the actual logistical circumstances of the late summer of 1944, is less easy; and any too-ready tendency to accept Montgomery’s point of view and dismiss Eisenhower’s is discouraged by the fact that Montgomery’s very competent Chief of Staff has in this matter espoused Eisenhower’s cause as against his own commander’s.73 Obviously, no one can say what would have happened had certain things been done differently. But the factors involved may be briefly considered.
The force which Montgomery evidently envisaged as conducting the thrust into Germany which he advocated early in September was about 20 divisions,* or considerably less than half of the total Allied force in the theatre. The fate of the enterprise would have depended upon this relatively small group, for the rest of the Allied Expeditionary Force would have been immobilized, or largely immobilized, by the diversion of administrative resources, particularly gasoline, to support the thrust.
As for the Germans, we have indicated (above, page 270) the desperate state of their forces in the West at the end of the Battle of Normandy. Just what were their capabilities at the time when Montgomery and the Supreme Commander were engaged in their debate? Eisenhower’s own Intelligence staff thought them not formidable. The SHAEF intelligence summary for the week ending 9 September estimated the number of German divisions in the West at that time as, nominally, 48: 14 panzer or panzer grenadier and 34 infantry. These largely shattered formations were assessed in the portion of the summary dealing with “enemy dispositions” as equivalent in “true strength” to four panzer and 20 infantry divisions; and four of these 20 were isolated in the French coastal fortresses. Under “enemy capabilities” the German strength was set even lower: the Commander-in-Chief West might “expect not more than a dozen divisions within the next two months to come from outside to the rescue”, and
To sum up, C-in-C West will soon have available the true equivalent of about fifteen divisions, including four panzer, for the defence of the West Wall. A further five or six may struggle up in the course of a month, making a total of about twenty.
The West Wall cannot be held with this amount, even when supplemented by many oddments and large amounts of flak.
Examination of the German documents now available74 indicates that even the lower estimate erred if anything on the side of exaggerating the German strength. (However, so many of the formations were badly reduced, and the amount of debility they had suffered varied so widely, that it seems impossible to reduce the German situation to exact statistics.) One thing can be said with considerable
* See above, page 308. In addition to the nine divisions of First US Army, the Second British Army had eight, and there were three airborne divisions ready for action in England. At least part of the strength of First Canadian Army (six divisions at this time) could not have been spared from its commitments on the coast from Le Havre to the Scheldt.
confidence. The German forces had been almost entirely stripped of armour, and this was particularly true in the northern sector. The German situation map for 2 September75 shows no armoured formation north of the line Mons–Namur–Liège. The only panzer division still in moderately good condition was the 11th, resisting the Allied advance near the Swiss border on the extreme southern flank. On 7 September, just after resuming command in the West, Rundstedt reported to Keitel on the Allies’ superiority:76
... In the face of all this Allied strength, all German forces are committed. They are badly depleted, in some cases crushed. Artillery and anti-tank weapons are lacking. Reserves worth much do not exist. Army Group B has about 100 tanks in working order. Considering Allied armoured strength the implications are clear.
Eight days later Rundstedt sent Jodl the following personal top-priority, top secret signal:77
During the past week the situation of Army Group B has further deteriorated. On a front of about 400 kilometres it fights with the strength of about twelve divisions and, at the moment, 84 tanks, assault guns and light anti-tank guns on Mark IV chassis, against a fully mobile enemy with at least 20 divisions and roughly 1700 tanks fit for commitment. The danger of new reverses in the area of Army Group B—with possibly grave consequences—can be removed only by speeding up the dispatch of the reinforcements that have repeatedly been requested.
I am aware of the reasons that hitherto have prevented a faster and more comprehensive strengthening of the western front. But 1 must to the full extent concur in the apprehensions of Field-Marshal Model to the effect that the forces slated for transfer might come too late.
I suggest therefore examining once more whether it is possible:
a. to advance the time of arrival of 246 and 363 VGD* as well as of the Projector and GHQ Arty Bdes;
b. to withdraw from the eastern front for a short period individual panzer divisions or at least several assault gun brigades for transfer to the western front.
These presentations by the C-in-C West are probably the most authoritative statements available.
The most critical moment for the Germans was immediately after the fall of Antwerp on 4 September. At that moment they were badly off balance and had, as we have seen, virtually no armour in their northern sector and very little anywhere in the West. Had the Allies been able to cut off the Fifteenth Army by blocking the South Beveland isthmus while striking simultaneously a heavy blow elsewhere in the northern sector, it would very probably have been fatal to the Germans. Yet this was also the worst moment of the Allied supply famine. The lines of communication of the 21st Army Group had just lengthened enormously; no port was available closer than the original bridgehead except Dieppe, which was just being opened; and Dieppe was small and itself already far distant from the Antwerp front. In these circumstances it would certainly have been necessary to do precisely what Montgomery asked, completely immobilizing all Allied forces other than his own, in order to make effective action possible on his front. The
* Volksgrenadier Divisions. This designation (“People’s Grenadier Division”) was given in the autumn of 1944 to various divisions being re-formed after being destroyed or badly cut up in the summer battles. These should not be confused with the Volkssturm, an improvised militia of little military value.
risks would have been serious, for the Germans’ performance at this period, notably in the Forêt de la Londe and the MARKET-GARDEN operation, reflected a capacity to recover from disaster and a fierce resolution in action which would certainly have ensured a very hard battle, however favourable the circumstances were for the Allies.
The point is worth making that Montgomery’s administrative calculations turned out to be unsound, in so far as they were based upon his having “one good Pas de Calais port” (above, page 310) actually working during the period of opportunity, We shall see that, thanks to the Germans’ obstinate defence and the thoroughness of their demolitions, the first Pas de Calais port (Boulogne) was not opened until 12 October (below, page 344). By that date the crucial battle would presumably have been over.
By the time Operation MARKET-GARDEN was attempted on 17 September, the Germans had recovered to a slight extent. They had collected a small number of tanks in the north, and these had considerable influence on the outcome. German armour contributed to overwhelming the lightly-armed 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem, and after that division lost control of the road bridge there tanks, moving south across it, intervened north of Nijmegen with important effect. Nevertheless, German armoured strength was still small. In a protracted battle, the tanks that fought in MARKET-GARDEN would soon have been destroyed and could not have been rapidly replaced. A battle in which one side had a great force of armour and the other virtually none would have been very unequal-though it is worth remembering that in not wholly dissimilar circumstances north of Falaise the 2nd Canadian Corps had made slow progress. And the Germans would still have had little air support to counterbalance the Allies’ great strength in this element; though autumn weather and inadequate forward airfields might have hampered our air forces. Finally, it may be assumed that Hitler would not have accepted defeat in the West without withdrawing troops from the Eastern Front in an attempt to stave it off. It would not have been easy to find the troops; but two or three panzer divisions from the East, if they arrived in time, might well have turned the scale against an ill-maintained and tired Allied army group in an autumn battle on the North German Plain. The available records78 suggest that two panzer divisions might possibly have been found on the Eastern Front from the 3rd Panzer Corps of the Fourth Panzer Army. But we have strayed too far from history into the field of the might-have-been.
All in all, if a score of Allied divisions had been able to cross the Rhine in September 1944 they would certainly have had a lethal and uncertain battle to fight; and nobody can contemplate without some apprehension the thought of these troops, deprived of help from other Allied ground forces, “slugging it out” with the desperate and determined enemy. Eisenhower had strong arguments on his side in favouring the conservative and prudent line rather than the bold one. The “broad front” policy defeated the Germans in the spring of 1945. It is possible that the more daring plan advocated by Montgomery, had it been fully accepted by Eisenhower at an early date and persevered in, would have defeated them in
the autumn of 1944. But we must recall that in Operation MARKET-GARDEN the Supreme Commander went a long way towards Montgomery’s policy, putting behind the thrust a degree of logistical support which the Field Marshal at the time thought “a great victory” and which gave him good hope of an early end to the war; and the operation failed. There is obviously no basis for a dogmatic statement.