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Which Road to Berlin?

In response to:

Hot, Cold and Imperial from the July 13, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Like a hearty weed, the argument that Britain and the US could have swept into Berlin within a few months after the Normandy landings keeps appearing in otherwise sensible discussions of the Second World War. The latest comes from Robert Skidelsky [“Hot, Cold & Imperial,” NYR, July 13]:

…Roosevelt showed no interest in getting British and American armies into Eastern Europe through Germany ahead of the Russians. This would have been quite feasible in the autumn of 1944, when Germany lay defenseless against Western assault.

Put aside for the moment the standard Churchill-worshiper slam against FDR.

Let’s just look at autumn 1944. After the breakout from Normandy, US armies were sputtering to a halt because of a lack of fuel. It wasn’t until late fall that the Allies were in control of port and delivery capacities close to sufficient to power a drive into the Third Reich. And even if the Allies had as much fuel as they wanted, the Germans certainly weren’t rolling over.

Operation Market Garden, Montgomery’s famous autumnal folly of overconfidence, was a large offensive that the Germans repulsed without unduly taxing their reserves. Autumn 1944 ended with the Ardennes Offensive, Hitler’s own overconfident folly. But God knows it was a tough fight, not the kind of thing you expect from an enemy that “lay defenseless.”

I fear that Skidelsky, out of desire to emphasize the moral kinship of Hitler and Stalin, has bought a discredited story that the Western Allies—and the US in particular—were so hoodwinked by Uncle Joe that they didn’t really try to “get into Eastern Europe ahead of the Russians” in 1944. As General McAuliffe said at Bastogne, Nuts.

Conn Nugent

The J.M. Kaplan Fund

New York City

Robert Skidelsky replies:

Mr. Nugent seems to forget that I was reviewing a book by Gregor Dallas on the Second World War, not writing a book of my own. I had no desire “to emphasize the moral kinship of Hitler and Stalin.” In fact my main criticism of Dallas was that he overemphasizes it. However, I did write a book which dealt with Anglo-American relations in the Second World War (John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 3: Fighting for Freedom, 1937–1946, Viking, 2001) and there is no doubt in my mind that FDR was“hoodwinked by Uncle Joe,” that important groups in the White House and US foreign policy establishment were anti-British, and that for them a US-Soviet condominium was preferable to an Anglo-American alliance. This adequately explains, in my view, FDR’s refusal to back Churchill’s attempt to negotiate a “percentages” agreement with Stalin covering Eastern Europe. How far it explains the military decisions made in 1944 is open to question.

Nugent dismisses as “a hearty weed” the argument that a different military strategy could have ended the war in the autumn of 1944, with the Western Allies in Berlin ahead of the Soviets. He explains that US armies were “sputtering to a halt because of a lack of fuel” and that “it wasn’t until late fall that the Allies were in control of port and delivery capacities close to sufficient to power a drive into the Third Reich.” But this situation arose after Eisenhower had made the fateful decision, in August 1944, to split the Allied forces in France and advance into Germany on a broad front. This decision meant rejection of Montgomery’s plan to concentrate all possible resources (including twelve divisions of Omar Bradley’s Twelfth Army Group) in a thrust to Berlin through the Ruhr, halting the “southern” advance of Patton toward Metz and the Saar. Antwerp was taken on September 7, 1944, but the northern offensive was too weakly supported to ensure early capture of its harbor facilities, which would have supplied a rapid advance into northern Germany. The splitting of the armies not only gave the Germans time to regroup, but created a gap in the Ardennes, through which Hitler launched his counterattack in December.

Nugent dismisses the idea that Germany “lay defenseless” in the late summer of 1944 in face of formidable testimony from the Germans themselves. In his life of Montgomery, Nigel Hamilton writes, “All the [German] generals to whom I talked were of the opinion that the Allied Supreme Command had missed a great opportunity of ending the war in the autumn of 1944” (Monty, The Field Marshal, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986, p. 3). In his memoirs, Churchill quotes General Spiedel, Rommel’s former chief of staff: “An orderly retreat became impossible. The Allied motorized armies surrounded the slow and exhausted German foot divisions in separate groups and smashed them up…. There were no German ground forces of any importance that could be thrown in, and next to nothing in the air” (Winston S. Churchill, The Second World War, Vol. 4: Triumph and Tragedy, London: Cassell, 1954, p. 166). General von Runstedt’s chief of staff said that had the Allies concentrated their forces for a thrust through the Ruhr, “Berlin and Prague would have been occupied ahead of the Russians” (Hamilton, Monty, p. 3).

Why did Eisenhower split the armies? Montgomery himself thought that it was a political, not military, decision. Montgomery’s Twenty-first Army Group controlled the northern front “and there could be no question of the American Army Group [under Bradley] coming under the operational control of a British General,” especially in the run-up to the presidential election (Hamilton, Monty, p. 5). In his own memoirs, Montgomery thought that American public opinion demanded that US war hero Patton be given his chance to end the war.

History purports to tell you what happened. Counterfactual history tells you what might have happened had different decisions been made. Speculation about what might have happened is an integral part of historical writing. But obviously it is much more debatable. Of the disagreement between Montgomery and Eisenhower, Churchill wisely remarked, “Strategists may long debate these issues.” There is no warrant for dismissing Montgomery’s rejected strategy as “nuts.”

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