Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s last gamble

"The effect of the Ardennes on Anglo-American relations was disastrous": Antony Beevor talks to Matt Elton about his new take on the major Second World War German offensive known as the 'battle of the Bulge', and how its legacy was felt decades after the conflict

A dead German soldier during the Antwerp offensive

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

What did Hitler hope to achieve through the Ardennes campaign?

Hitler had an obsessive idea that, despite reality on the eastern and western fronts, he could somehow turn things around. His mindset at this stage was trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which was actually pretty well impossible. But his idea was to break through in the Ardennes, where the Germans had historically succeeded several times, rather than going north, because he felt that the US force in that region was so strong that to do so would be a major mistake.

This article was first published in the June 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What did Hitler hope to achieve through the Ardennes campaign?

Hitler had an obsessive idea that, despite reality on the eastern and western fronts, he could somehow turn things around. His mindset at this stage was trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, which was actually pretty well impossible. But his idea was to break through in the Ardennes, where the Germans had historically succeeded several times, rather than going north, because he felt that the US force in that region was so strong that to do so would be a major mistake.

That’s why German forces were ordered to charge due west and then swing north up to Antwerp, because Hitler felt that if he could seize the major port where all the supplies were coming in – cutting off the British and the Canadians – he might knock one or possibly both of them out of the war.

His generals, however, knew perfectly well that this was completely impossible. Even if they did get all the way to Antwerp, which they thought highly unlikely, they would never be able to defend the corridor all the way. So it was not a practical solution.

Hitler felt that his one chance in making this breakthrough was to hit the American troops so hard that they would collapse in a heap and he’d be able to get through. But he had underestimated the fighting qualities of the American troops, as well as the difficulties of the terrain and the roads. As a result, the Germans lost the momentum that they needed to ensure that form of collapse. They simply didn’t give the Americans enough credit for their abilities, both in terms of decision-making and the logistics of bringing in reinforcements.

To what extent did the offensive take the Allies by surprise?

Totally. I mean, there’s no doubt about that. There were a number of warnings, but the level of surprise points to one of the great failings of the intelligence world. Hitler’s psychology is always a difficult subject and historians should not speculate in areas where there is only superficial evidence. But what one does realise is that the failure on the intelligence side was largely due to the fact that, when one tries to put oneself in an opponent’s shoes, one is actually making a slight mistake. You’re still trying to perceive things from your opponent’s view but with your mentality and your calculations on how you’d react in that particular situation.

The Allies had assumed that Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was in command, so also assumed that he – being a logical commander – would not waste his troops by charging out into the open in a major attack that could actually play into American strengths of air power and tank power, even on an undefended part of the front. But of course, it wasn’t Rundstedt that was in charge, but Hitler. We’ve always made this mistake with dictators – we did it with Saddam Hussein – of putting ourselves in their shoes but not in their minds, and this was very much the case with Hitler.

How important was the weather in shaping the course of the fighting?

One has to remember that two thirds of the battle was fought in darkness. As we get into spring one forgets quite how dark the winter is, and during that period in December most of those guys were facing 18-hour nights. During the day they were praying for nightfall and during the night they were praying for dawn, so conditions were pretty appalling.

First of all there was the mud. Even those with spare pairs of socks still had difficulty drying their feet and putting them on, and the danger of trenchfoot was continual. From the mud and the water to the streams, the whole place was completely waterlogged. Imagine crossing rivers and digging foxholes in that: you start to sweat like a pig in a moment and then that freezes on you. The temperature dropped close to -25C at times, which the men were simply not equipped for, so there were many cases of frostbite.

The stress of the fighting was such that sometimes more than 20 per cent of the overall casualties were so-called ‘non-battle casualties’, which usually boiled down to trenchfoot, frostbite, or psychological collapse. The strain was phenomenal. You can never exactly predict who’s going to hold up, but there are indications, and since very few of us have ever been through anything like that it’s very hard to make any moral judgment on those who did collapse.

How tough was fighting on both sides?

It was extremely savage. The killing of prisoners was relentless on both sides and I’m not sure how the Americans are going to react to this book. I’m afraid to say that, although historians tend to be much more honest now, in the past they have always tended to either downplay or overlook or deliberately ignore the killing of prisoners, especially by their own side. And the killing of prisoners in the Ardennes was really very shocking, actually, on both sides. It started with the Germans, but the Americans certainly didn’t hang back.

It was different in the sense that, among the Americans, it was not led by the cold-blooded cruelty of the SS division, but instead the inexperience of a division that had been through some appalling experiences and was cracking up at the time. So  I’m not trying to neatly put it into the same category. But I still think it’s shocking that, as one of the official American historians of the conflict later acknowledged, officers were saying: “We have to keep a couple of samples and shoot all of the other prisoners.”

What factors do you think most contributed to the German defeat?

It was an accumulation of things. Obviously supplies made the difference: ammunition wasn’t getting through, food certainly wasn’t getting through, and Germans were having to live off the land, or what they captured from Americans – but from the start of January 1945 they weren’t doing that any more because they weren’t advancing.

That was another factor: the failure of the Germans to keep up the momentum of attack and break through as quickly as they needed to, and the rapidity of the American response. They were able to bring in 90,000 reinforcements in just over 24 hours, and no other army in the world could have achieved that. It wasn’t just because they had the trucks, but also because of their levels of organisation. That’s where the Americans and Germans have always been better than the British: at focusing and prioritising.

How brutal was the fighting in the Ardennes compared to that which took place on the eastern front?

The massacres of civilians were not on the same scale, but they were certainly far worse than anything seen on the western front up until then. The mentality had arrived from the eastern front: one has to remember that most of those SS Panzer Divisions had been positioned there for most of the war, and so their mentality was geared to that form of totally pitiless fighting.

Hitler had also ordered his troops to put aside all scruples, and so they would break international law by, for instance, dressing in enemy uniforms. They were prepared to do anything to win, and the American realisation of quite how vicious an enemy they were up against is why they fought back in the equally unscrupulous way that they did.

What were the wider effects of this particular episode of the war?

Its effect on Anglo-American relations was disastrous. One only has to look at the 1945 Malta Conference [to plan the final campaign against German forces] in which the British lost all influence whatsoever. I think that [future US president] Eisenhower was so angry about how British field marshal Bernard Montgomery had behaved, his arrogance and lack of tact, that it still influenced his attitude to Britain when it came to the Suez Crisis.

That was the degree of anger that it caused, especially among American generals. Many recognised that British officers felt more or less the same as they did, but the fact that the British press behaved so badly the whole time, calling for Eisenhower to be pushed aside and for Montgomery to be given field command, confirmed all of their worst suspicions about Britain as a country.

In what ways would you like this book to change readers’ view of the period?

On a more general point – and this is something I always bang on about – there is a danger that we try to work out what’s going to happen in the future by learning ‘lessons’ from the past. The Second World War has become the dominant reference point for every single conflict and crisis today. But let’s face it: international relations in today’s global world are more like a pinball machine with things bouncing off in different directions. It’s almost impossible to predict.

Even Winston Churchill made the astonishing mistake of saying that we need to learn history so that we can understand the future. But that’s rubbish: we’re never going to learn about the future because we learn the wrong things from history, and try to make superficial parallels with what we’re facing today. For god’s sake, don’t think that things are going to be like the Second World War today. Warfare has changed and the world order has changed.

A very good reason for studying the Second World War is to be able to spot the artificial arguments and constructions that are sometimes pushed by the media and – above all – politicians.

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Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble by Antony Beevor (Viking, 480 pages, £25)