Thursday, May 28, 2015

Origin of the Ardennes Counteroffensive I

On the morning of July 25, 1944, more than 2,400 American bombers and fighter-bombers launched an aerial assault on a narrow sector of the German front in western Normandy. The aircraft, approaching at an altitude of 12,000 feet, flew directly over the heads of awed American infantry below. Four thousand tons of explosives tumbled out of the bomb bays in great rectangular carpet patterns, and most of the bombs found their way to Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer Lehr Division, dug in awaiting another American ground onslaught. The carnage on the ground was awful, and Bayerlein compared his front line to the face of the moon. In an instant, 1,000 of his men died. The day before, the division had confidently shaken off the first American attempt to crush the line with airpower, but not today. As the stunned Germans tried to recover from the shattering effects of the new bombardment, American ground forces under the command of Major General J. Lawton Collins slowly began to exploit the breach. This was Operation COBRA, the long-awaited American breakout from the hedgerows of Normandy.

By August 1 Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the American Twelfth Army Group, finally deployed Patton’s Third Army. Seizing on the opportunity presented by the hard work of Collins’s men, Patton, who had taken command of VIII Corps, rapidly pushed two armored divisions south through a bottleneck at Avranches at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula and began to pour into Brittany to execute the pre-OVERLORD plan. This southward thrust of American armor startled Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, who declared, “If the Americans get through at Avranches they will be out of the woods and they’ll be able to do what they want.” Kluge, however, had already conceded that his left flank had collapsed. Even as Patton began to fully deploy Third Army, Hitler conceived a bold stroke to regain the initiative in Normandy.

In a snap decision on August 2, Hitler ordered Kluge to concentrate a strong panzer force in the American sector, regardless of the repercussions in the British sector, to attack Third Army’s lines of communications (LC) between Avranches and Mortain. Kluge, utterly shocked at the implications, tried to lecture Hitler on the fact that tanks were the backbone of the German defense in Normandy. If they were committed to such an operation, which looked from all angles to be a perfect trap, Kluge exclaimed, “catastrophe was inevitable.” Hitler scoffed at Kluge’s realistic assessment and considered the operation a “unique, never recurring opportunity for a complete reversal of the situation.”

In the early-morning hours of August 7, General der Panzertruppen Hans von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps, consisting of the 1st and 2nd SS Panzer Divisions (PDs) and 2nd and 116th PDs, with some 300 combined panzers and assault guns, launched Operation LÜTTICH and achieved tactical surprise. ULTRA intelligence, however, provided sufficient information from German communications to permit the timely redeployment of American units. In his frustration, Hitler stated, “How does the enemy learn our thoughts from us?” The panzers made some progress in the direction of Avranches and overran several American positions, but stout resistance by the American 30th Infantry Division at Hill 317 east of Mortain, the intervention of intrepid American dive-bombers, and the effectiveness of bazooka teams eventually crippled the attack. The failure of what the Americans called the “Mortain counteroffensive” quickly complicated Hitler’s strategic dilemma. As Kluge had predicted, its failure led to catastrophe. Within two weeks of the operation, the entire German front in Normandy had given way, and a large part of the Seventh Armee was compressed and mostly destroyed in the “Falaise Pocket” as it desperately tried to fight its way east.

It is a commonly held assumption that the German collapse in Normandy represented a turning point, in that Germany simply played out the rest of the war like a football team watching the game clock tick down in a losing effort. In reality, Hitler continued to calculate strategically and never abandoned the spirit of LÜTTICH. He was bent on regaining the initiative somewhere in the west. Hitler was not overly concerned that the Allies had crossed the Seine River in pursuit or that the disaster of the Falaise Pocket was only hours old when he conceived another large counterstroke. On August 19 Generaloberst Alfred Jodl, chief of the Wehrmachtführungsstab (WFSt) at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), noted in his diary: “Prepare to take the offensive in November when the enemy air forces can’t operate.”

In early September Jodl told Hitler that for an offensive in the west to have a chance of success, Allied airpower had to be negated by a lengthy period of bad weather, and an operational reserve of twenty-five divisions had to be raised. Hitler quickly authorized the latter and on September 13 ordered the creation of the Sixth Panzer Armee to oversee the rehabilitation of the specific army and SS panzer divisions that would be pulled out of the line. November 1 was considered the earliest date that any sort of operation could be launched. The idea of striking the Allies in the Ardennes finally crystallized in Hitler’s mind during a routine briefing on September 16 at the Wolfschanze (Wolf’s Lair), the Führer’s field headquarters at Rastenberg in East Prussia. Jodl, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, and Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, inspector-general of panzer forces, were all present. While outlining the situation on the Western Front, Jodl mentioned the Ardennes in passing. Hitler cut him off and after some tense seconds said, “I have made a momentous decision. I shall go over to the offensive . . . here, out of the Ardennes, with the objective Antwerp.” This vital port supplied the bulk of Allied logistical needs on the Continent. Guderian, no stranger to deep, strategic-level operations, was dumbfounded. The Germans were actually doing a decent job of holding the Allied advance in the west, but he pointed out the critical situation in the east. In Guderian’s opinion, taking desperately needed resources away from the Russian Front was grossly irresponsible.

Irrevocably set on the counteroffensive idea, Hitler turned his attention to holding sufficient ground in front of the West Wall, a belt of concrete fortifications running along the German frontier, to permit the preparation and concentration of the necessary forces. By the time he had settled on an offensive in the west, Patton’s Third Army was threatening the West Wall in Lorraine. Hitler, however, had identified Third Army as a threat much earlier, issuing orders on September 3 for an attack against Patton’s southern flank to shield the withdrawal of Nineteenth Armee and LXIV Armeekorps from southern France, as well as to protect the construction work in progress on the western defenses.9 General der Panzertruppen Hasso Eccard von Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Armee struck Third Army’s armored spearhead on September 18. At the cost of hundreds of factory-new Panther tanks, Manteuffel blunted Patton’s hard charge to the frontier fortifications in a week of heavy fighting.

By early November Hitler identified three danger areas on the Western Front: Metz (where Third Army was), Aachen, and Venlo. On November 9 he ordered no retreat in these areas, and even if Fortress Metz was encircled, the Nied River line (extending southeast of Metz) was to be held at all costs. However, the Germans were unsuccessful in holding any of these positions up to the beginning of the offensive. By December 7 Hitler signaled all commanders that holding the West Wall was critical because it was “superior as a fortification to all other possible natural obstacles,” and penetrations had to be prevented “at all costs.”

Hitler never doubted that any counteroffensive aimed at gaining a breather for Germany would have to be launched in the west. Options in late 1944 were extremely limited. As Jodl reflected, “We had to attack in the West because the Russians had so many troops that even if we succeeded in destroying 30 divisions, it would not make any difference. On the other hand, if we destroyed 30 divisions in the West, it would account for more than one-third of the whole Invasion Army. . . . Italy offered more hope . . . but the railhead connections were much worse than in the West. . . . The West was the only place in Europe where we had a chance of success.”

Cultural considerations also motivated Hitler’s decision to strike the Americans first. It is clear that he understood and feared American industrial might well before 1939, and a considerable argument can be made that his entire geopolitical strategy, including invading the Soviet Union, was designed to prepare Germany for an ultimate showdown with the American economic juggernaut. When Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941, in response to the request of the Japanese ambassador, Baron Hiroshi Oshima, the German High Command was shocked by the addition of such a powerful foe to Germany’s list of enemies. The declaration seemed all the more fantastic because the Tripartite Pact, which bound Germany, Japan, and Italy in a loose alliance, did not specifically state that Germany had to give aid to Japan in the event of war with the United States. After declaring war on the world’s greatest economic power, Hitler publicly hurled abuse at President Franklin Roosevelt and arrogantly announced that America’s entry into the war would make little difference in the long run.

Hitler was even less fearful of American martial prowess. After three and a half gruesome years of battling the hated Bolsheviks, Hitler grudgingly admitted their toughness in unimaginable conditions. Their astounding capacity for punishment led him to conclude that they were far tougher opponents than the British, Canadians, and Americans. His contempt for the Americans in particular was evident in March 1943 when he declared, “There is no doubt that of all the Anglo-Saxons the English are the best.” Hitler’s disregard for American fighting power coincided with the fact that the Americans were thinly deployed in the Ardennes, and when his almost slavish obedience to history is considered, his decision to attack through the forest (next to the Vosges mountains to the south, the most difficult terrain on the Western Front) seems almost inevitable.

Throughout September and October, Jodl and the General Staff developed Hitler’s concept under conditions of extreme secrecy while pushing forward their own alternatives to match the actual resources of the Reich. They even proposed two operations to address the threat posed by Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine: Operation LUXEMBOURG, a double envelopment from central Luxembourg and Metz to seize Longwy, and Operation LORRAINE, a double envelopment from Metz and Baccarat to converge on Nancy. Neither Generalfeldmarschall Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, Oberbefelshaber (commander in chief) West (OB West), nor Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, commander of Heeresgruppe (Army Group) B, were brought into the picture until late October. The chosen army commanders—Manteuffel of Fifth Panzer Armee, SS-Obergruppenführer und Panzergeneral Josef “Sepp” Dietrich of the Sixth Panzer Armee (not officially designated SS yet), and General der Panzertruppen Erich Brandenberger of Seventh Armee—were not enlightened until October 27. Rundstedt exclaimed that the choice of the Ardennes was a “stroke of genius,” but he was nonetheless “staggered” by the scope. “All,” he lamented, “absolutely all conditions for the possible success of such an offensive were lacking.” The fiery Model’s first reaction was outright condemnation. “This plan,” he stated, “hasn’t got a damned leg to stand on.” Rundstedt and Model differed on how best to employ Hitler’s new strategic reserves but agreed that Antwerp was an impossible objective.

Origin of the Ardennes Counteroffensive II

On October 21 Aachen, a large urban metropolis with a prewar population of 165,000, was the first German city to fall to the Allies, and the heavy concentration of American forces there worried both Rundstedt and Model. From late October to mid-December they tried to limit the counteroffensive to outflanking and destroying a portion of First United States Army, perhaps two or three corps, east of the Meuse River in the Aachen area to preempt what they saw as the biggest threat to the important Ruhr industrial area to the north. Hitler ridiculed the idea, declaring it a half measure with no real prospect of success. Moreover, he had no intention of attacking straight into the heart of American strength. He fended off every effort by his senior commanders to scale down the operation, and in the end, the scope and objective laid out in the final operations order on December 9 were unchanged from Rundstedt and Model’s first briefing in October. To silence all further argument, Hitler emphatically scribbled the words “Not to be altered” on the final order for the attack.

Hitler’s strategic intent was to split the Allies both physically and psychologically. He took great comfort from the fact that during the Seven Years’ War his hero, Frederick the Great of Prussia, had managed to hang on against what appeared to be an overwhelming coalition of France, Austria, Russia, the Holy Roman Empire, and Sweden until fractures in the alliance undermined its strength. By retaining the initiative and inflicting decisive tactical defeats such as Rossbach and Leuthen in late 1757, Frederick had been able to withstand setbacks long enough to get him to the Treaty of Hubertusburg, which restored the prewar balance of power and recognized Prussia as a great power.

The Western Front was divided among four army groups: Heeresgruppe H in the north held the Twenty-Fifth and First Fallschirmjäger Armees; Model’s Heeresgruppe B contained the Fifteenth Armee, Sixth and Fifth Panzer Armees, and Seventh Armee; Heeresgruppe G contained only one army, the First; and Heeresgruppe Oberrhein (commanded by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler since November 30) contained the Nineteenth Armee. Heeresgruppe B was to execute the counteroffensive. The final objective was to reach Antwerp and thereby set the conditions for the destruction of a significant portion of First Army, all of the Ninth United States Army to the north, and the entire Twenty-First Army Group, consisting of the First Canadian and Second British Armies, north of the Antwerp–Brussels–Bastogne line. Such a feat would “set the stage for the annihilation of the bulk of twenty to thirty divisions,” declared Hitler. “It will be another Dunkirk.”

As a strategic objective, Antwerp looked tantalizing, but the terrain of this line of action presented a formidable military obstacle. The Ardennes was a wedge-shaped region covering areas of Luxembourg, Belgium, and northern France, bounded on the west by the Meuse River, on the north by the Hürtgen Forest, on the south by the French Ardennes (Forêt des Ardennes) and the Semois River, and on the east by the Our and Sauer Rivers. The Ardennes was subdivided into three distinguishable terrain areas. The Low Ardennes in the north was restricted on the west by the Meuse River and on the north by the Hürtgen Forest. The area consisted of low, rolling hills and two generally open areas suitable for movement—the Herve Plateau near Viviers, and the Condroz Plateau between the Ourthe and Meuse Rivers. This northern sector of the Ardennes also contained the Hohes Venn, a high plateau of lakes and marshes running southwest from Monschau toward Stavelot, as well as more marshland between Laroche and Vielsalm and, to the southwest, the great forest of St. Hubert. The Hohes Venn plateau was a terrain feature larger than the Schnee Eifel (Snow Mountains), a high, tree-covered ridge running southwest to northeast on the east side of the Our River and on which stood significant portions of the West Wall fortifications. In the gap between the Laroche–Vielsalm marshland and the St. Hubert forest ran the Ourthe River, a twisting, winding gorge.

The High Ardennes in the south is often referred to as the “true Ardennes.” It consisted of a wide plateau from which rose generally unrelated ridges or higher plateaus. This basic fact, combined with patchwork sections of heavy forest, had a direct impact on tactics because possession of one hill did not necessarily ensure domination of another. The High Ardennes was divided into the Hautes Fagnes (High Heaths) around Bastogne and Neufchâteau in the north and the Forêt des Ardennes, which extended to the Semois River, in the south. The average altitude in the Ardennes region was 1,600 feet. Cutting through the middle section of the Ardennes was the third distinguishable terrain feature, the Famenne Depression, a long, narrow, nearly treeless “trench” extending from the upper Ourthe River near the Belgium–Luxembourg border westward through Houffalize–Marche–Rochefort to the Meuse River near Dinant and Givet. In the northern part of Luxembourg the Wiltz, Clerf, and Sûre Rivers followed long, deep, narrow, and tortuous valleys.

The road net in the Ardennes was relatively good because the Belgians and Luxembourgers had invested heavily in auto tourism just prior to the outbreak of war. All the main roads were hard-surfaced macadam, and ten all-weather roads crossed the German frontier into Belgium and Luxembourg between Monschau and Wasserbillig. However, there was not a single main road that traversed the Ardennes in a straight east-west direction. In 1914 and 1940 the French High Command had placed great faith in the forest’s ability to block German penetrations. The German Third and Fourth Armees had successfully penetrated the forest on their way to meet the French at the pivotal Battle of the Marne in 1914, and the bold march of the bulk of the panzer forces through the area in May 1940 had been the key to German victory over the larger combined British and French armies. In both 1914 and 1940 the Germans had essentially conducted route marches through the area in excellent weather conditions, but winter conditions posed major problems for German planners as they assigned troops to tasks and considered logistical requirements.

Heeresgruppe B was to assemble east of the Our and Sauer Rivers in the Eifel, a complex of heavily forested hills that stretched all the way to the Rhine. The road and rail net in the region was adequate for a large military concentration. The success of both the marshaling of necessary forces and their advance through the Ardennes was heavily dependent on a guaranteed period of bad weather to blind and degrade Allied airpower’s striking effectiveness beyond the cover afforded by the forest. Model was to execute a frontal penetration attack (Durchbruchsangriff) rather than an envelopment to smash through Twelfth Army Group, destroy the continuity of its front, and advance rapidly west and northwest while simultaneously enveloping the shoulders of the breakthrough.

Model estimated that there were five divisions with 300 tanks opposite Sixth Panzer Armee, three divisions with 150 tanks opposite Fifth Panzer Armee, and two divisions with 100 tanks opposite Seventh Armee. In the north he estimated fifteen divisions with 1,450 tanks opposite Fifteenth Armee. His schwerpunkt (center of gravity) was estimated to be the weakest point of First Army, VIII Corps, holding a sixty-mile front from Monschau to Echternach. From north to south, VIII Corps consisted of the 106th Infantry Division, 14th Cavalry Group, 28th Infantry Division, Combat Command A (CCA)/9th Armored Division, and 4th Infantry Division. Sixth Panzer Armee in the north, built around a heavy concentration of SS panzer divisions, was Model’s main effort oriented on the boundary separating V and VIII Corps. Dietrich’s army frontage was some twenty-three miles, but his actual attack frontage was less than half that, a fact that would have an immediate negative impact on operations. Dietrich was expected to have his leading panzer elements at the Meuse astride Liège within twenty-four hours, followed by a second panzer wave. The establishment of strong, north-facing defensive positions along the Albert Canal was critical to facilitate the final advance on Antwerp.

To facilitate Dietrich’s penetration to the Meuse, a small airborne operation code-named STÖSSER (Auk) was to be led by Oberst Friedrich August Baron von der Heydte. His small Kampfgruppe (KG) of around 800 men would drop in advance of the panzers onto the Hautes Fagnes to seize key road junctions and block reinforcements from the north. Simultaneously, SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny’s makeshift Panzer Brigade 150 would try to cause havoc in the American rear areas on Dietrich’s line of action by disrupting communications and redirecting traffic. Skorzeny had rescued Mussolini from Gran Sasso in the Abruzzi mountains in September 1943 in a daring glider-borne operation, and Hitler placed considerable faith in his ability to function as a force multiplier.

In the center Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Armee was to protect Dietrich’s southern flank. Fifth Panzer Armee would attack the 106th Infantry Division and part of the 28th Infantry Division, cross the Meuse between Amay and Namur, and then turn northwest alongside Sixth Panzer Armee to prevent Allied forces from attacking Dietrich’s rear from west of the Antwerp–Brussels–Dinant line. In the south Brandenberger’s Seventh Armee was to attack the remainder of the 28th Infantry Division and the 4th Infantry Division and act as flank protection for Manteuffel, all the way to the Meuse and Semois Rivers, in the event that Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine was redeployed against the counteroffensive.

Hitler added Generaloberst Gustav Adolf von Zangen’s Fifteenth Armee to the order of battle on November 10, with the intent of having it open a secondary offensive code-named SPÄTLESE (Late Harvest) north of Aachen on December 18. However, Hitler had no stomach for directly attacking American strength around Aachen, and SPÄTLESE was restricted until the American positions east of that city had been severely weakened. Generaloberst Kurt Student, commander in chief of Heeresgruppe H, pressed for a complementary operation by his army group but was denied. Hitler rationalized that withholding simultaneous supporting attacks elsewhere along the front was low risk because he anticipated a quick penetration to the Meuse, thereby presenting a wider range of options for employment of the flanking armies. His belief in the ability to carry out that quick penetration was built on his faith in the SS and the deception measures he had stringently enforced. Surprise was to be another key force multiplier.

Although Hitler canceled SPÄTLESE, he would authorize a subsidiary offensive code-named NORDWIND in Alsace, which would commence on January 1, 1945. NORDWIND represented the last large-scale German offensive of the war. Hitler would vainly try to orchestrate a counteroffensive against Marshal Polkovnik Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front west of the Danube in early March 1945 with the remnants of Sixth SS Panzer Armee, but the depleted panzer force was destined for a precipitous retreat to the Austrian border.

The Germans must be given considerable credit for their preparations in the fall of 1944. Assembling the necessary combat power entailed considerable risk in withdrawing forces from the line, holding critical ground forward of the assembly areas, rehabilitating the assigned forces, and assembling the requisite classes of supply. This was all done under cover of a sophisticated deception plan. The deceptive code name for the Ardennes operation, WACHT AM RHEIN (Watch on the Rhine), did not appear in the ULTRA signals because Hitler forbade its use over the telephone or wireless telegraph. However, the code name ABWEHRSCHLACHT IM WESTEN (Defensive Battle in the West) was purposely disseminated through German radio traffic to reinforce the defensive nature of the fighting around Aachen and the intention to employ Sixth Panzer Armee in a counterattack role west of the Rhine. Tracking the various armies was also problematic because each had a cover name, and the Germans made it a complex game of hide-and-seek. Sixth Panzer Armee was Rest and Refit Staff 16, Fifth Panzer Armee was Jagerkommando zur besonderen Werwendung (zbV, “for special purposes”), and Fifteenth Armee was Gruppe von Manteuffel.

The success of the operation depended on many things going right. The probability of everything aligning for a rapid advance to the Meuse and beyond was low. If the original plan faltered, it would be imperative to have anticipated where and when problems might occur and to be ready with contingency plans. Main efforts might have to be shifted once other opportunities presented themselves. Hitler and his commanders needed to have true situational understanding to identify points at which new decisions had to be made. Although the main plan was well articulated, contingency planning was unrefined, perhaps because Hitler placed so much faith in Sixth Panzer Armee’s ability to accomplish its task. WACHT AM RHEIN had strong points and weak points in its grand tactical scheme of maneuver and main effort, and those weak points reduced the probability of achieving the goal of reaching Antwerp. It must be remembered that it had been almost two years since the last successful German strategic counteroffensive, back during Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s brilliant victory at Kharkov following Stalingrad. Much had changed since then to degrade the German war-fighting system.

Monday, May 25, 2015

A 'successful landing' – Channel Islands

The tragedy, comedy and confusion that reigned on both sides is illustrated by what happened to Britain's Channel Islands in this summer of 1940. These small islands, part of Great Britain but not of the United Kingdom, are self-governing communities under the British crown. They are all near to France, and by 19 June 1940 Whitehall had decided that they should be demilitarized and declared 'open towns'. 

However with that reticence for which bureaucrats are noted, the men in Whitehall did not announce this decision, probably because the humiliation of publicly yielding British territory could not be faced. 

To test whether they were being defended the Germans sent aircraft to fly very low across the islands. As one roared across St. Peter Port on Guernsey, someone aboard the Southern Railway steamer Isle of Sark, sailing from Jersey to Southampton, fired ancient twin mounted Lewis machine-guns at it. 

The Germans decided that there was a military force on the islands. As a result Heinkel He 111 bombers bombed and machine-gunned the two principal towns of St. Helier in Jersey and St. Peter Port, Guernsey, on the evening of 28 June. There were many casualties, and only after this did Whitehall admit that the islands had been demilitarized. 

The German monitoring service missed the demilitarization announcement put out by the BBC, and it was the United States ambassador in Paris who made sure the Germans knew of it. The commander of the German naval forces in northern France was engaged in a conference on the subject of the Channel Islands when he received the news by telephone. It was decided that occupation would be a propaganda coup. Luftflotte 3 assigned ten Junkers Ju 52 transport planes as well as fighter, bomber and reconnaissance units to the task. Army Group B were to provide soldiers, and naval craft were prepared for the assault on the beaches. 

Most importantly film camera-men, photographers and writers were sent to Cherbourg and attached to all the participating units. 

Meanwhile a Dornier Do 17P - a version of the somewhat outdated 'flying pencil' relegated to reconnaissance duties landed, apparently on a whim, at Guernsey airport. Locals told the pilot that the islands were undefended. When the Dornier returned to its base, a few Luftwaffe personnel were given rifles and flown across to the island formally to take it over. The next morning another Dornier piloted by Oberleutnant Richard Kern flew to Jersey airport. He took over there armed with nothing more than his pistol. 

These enterprising men of the Luftwaffe had, of course, completely spoiled the propaganda invasion. To make things even more humiliating for the assembled invasion force, their own start was delayed by fog. 

The Channel Islanders' first sight of the rank-and-file German occupation forces was good enough to persuade them that they were specially selected as disciplined, polite and good-looking. In fact these troops were a company of Infantry Regiment 396 (216 Infantry Division) and were simply the nearest available unit.