Stand and Die

Richard Overy

  • Rückzug: The German Retreat from France, 1944 by Joachim Ludewig, edited by David Zabecki
    Kentucky, 435 pp, £33.95, September 2012, ISBN 978 0 8131 4079 7

On the German side, the history of the last two years of the Second World War is a history of retreating. Occasionally, the retreats were punctuated by large-scale counter-attacks – Rommel at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia; Operation Autumn Mist in December 1944 – but whether they liked it or not, the German forces generally had to move backwards. This history is nevertheless seldom treated as one of retreat, but rather of defeats and shifting front lines. Retreat carries an air of failure, yet the German retreats were rarely catastrophic. Withdrawal in good order to a new defensive position was the common denominator of much of the later fighting in Russia, North Africa and Italy. Defeat came when there was nowhere left to retreat to.

The retreat through France after the Allied break-out following the Normandy invasion threatened to break that pattern. In Rückzug, Joachim Ludewig, an official in the German defence ministry, who first published this newly translated study more than twenty years ago, describes the sudden collapse of German resistance in August 1944 and the headlong flight towards the German border. Yet despite the Allies’ expectations that they could enter Germany and end the war before Christmas, the retreating army stopped at the border, turned round and defied the logic of defeat. It was the turn of the Allies, at Arnhem and in what they called the Battle of the Bulge rather than Autumn Mist, to suffer temporary defeats, and for Hitler to imagine briefly that the tide of war might be turned. This is in some sense the implication of the book, though perhaps not what Ludewig intends. By stopping the story in September 1944, when the new front stabilised along the German and Dutch borders, he is writing a history of German military success and with it the possibility that absolute, unconditional defeat might have been avoided.

This is a troubling way to approach the subject because it reawakens the argument, common among surviving German generals in the 1950s, that the German army was consistently more effective than its opponents and lost only because of the enemy’s overwhelming numbers and Hitler’s poor strategic judgment. Ludewig’s focus on military disaster followed by sudden recovery transforms the German army in the West into a heroic shield, rather than a brittle last line of defence before eventual defeat in March 1945. His question is how, in the most adverse of circumstances, it was possible to construct such a shield and what it says about the vaunted strengths of German military organisation and fighting power. Much less space is devoted to what the Allies got right, for all their inexperience, from General Eisenhower as supreme commander down to platoon level, and much more on what they got wrong. There is throughout a sense that if the Allies had understood operational warfare better, the war might have ended months sooner. Given all the resources at the Allies’ disposal, the long German retreat should have been turned into a comprehensive rout. This is an important issue because the Allies’ failure to exploit their superiority made it certain that the Western powers would not get to Berlin before the Russians, which by this point was seeming like a political necessity, and certain that hundreds of thousands more soldiers and civilians would die before the war could be won.

The roots of the lengthy withdrawal across France lay in the strategic choices made by Hitler late in 1943. The Führer Directive No. 51 of 3 November 1943, which called on German forces to drive the enemy into the sea once an invasion had begun, committed the army in the West to a war on the coast, with distant reserves and little opportunity for the kind of manoeuvring at which German forces had excelled. It was something of an irony that Field Marshal Rommel should have been chosen for the task of conducting a fixed defensive war in the West when all his instincts were for fighting a mobile battle (as he had shown when he led a division in the invasion of France four years before). Hitler was convinced that the invasion could be snuffed out before the Allies got a firm foothold, and that once this had been achieved, German efforts could be concentrated against the approaching Red Army in the East, where the real danger was perceived to lie. Ludewig claims that Hitler’s clouded strategic vision echoed the situation as it had existed in 1940, but it is much more reminiscent of the two-front fantasies of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914-18, whose miscalculations might well have served as a warning had Hitler ever listened to history.

Hitler had put all his eggs in one basket. If the plan to drive the Allies back into the sea failed (Allied commanders feared greatly that it might not), it was evident that little separated the Allied forces from the German frontier. Hitler’s thinking was taken up with the idea of the counter-offensive, on this and numerous other occasions. A sensible strategic withdrawal, like that conducted by Kesselring in Italy following the Allies’ capture of Rome in early June 1944, might have secured a more stable and defensible line in France and have held up the Allies for longer. But Hitler was also convinced that the main weight of the Allied attack would come in the Pas de Calais, making a powerful counter-offensive absolutely vital to protect the Ruhr. In the event, it had to be improvised far to the west, where holding the line and counter-attacking were always going to be more difficult. When the Allies eventually broke out of the invasion bridgehead in late July 1944, the Germans’ vulnerability was exposed. The final counter-offensive against Mortain ordered by Hitler in early August was a disaster and opened up the possibility of the complete encirclement and annihilation of his armies in the West.

Ludewig sees the month that followed, from 15 August to mid-September, as one of exceptional crisis; most of his book is taken up with a dense narrative of what went on in the field. Hitler was fortunate that the two men in command on the ground rose to the challenge presented by imminent collapse. In northern France he appointed Field Marshal Walter Model, a tough, sensible commander who had proved his worth in harsh fighting in the East, to take over from Field Marshal Kluge. In southern France, Army Group G, now hard pressed by the launching of a second Allied invasion on the Mediterranean coast, was commanded by Colonel-General Johannes Blaskowitz, one of the officers who protested against the murder of Poles and Jews by the Einsatzgruppen in Poland in 1939, and was sidelined to occupation duties in France as a result. On 16 August, he was given the order to begin withdrawing from southern France. Both men succeeded in extricating substantial bodies of troops in the face of constant interference from Hitler’s supreme headquarters.

Blaskowitz managed to get many of his forces out as an Allied pincer movement closed around the nougat capital of Montélimar, bringing them north to the frontier area around Nancy to link up with German defence forces along the Mosel river, diminished in size but still relatively intact. The Free French launched small attacks, but the local population was, Ludewig suggests, mostly quiet – an attitude that may well have been prompted by the massacre of villagers at Oradour-sur-Glane by Waffen-SS soldiers a few weeks before. Model, on the other hand, had to watch German forces squeeze along the few remaining roads near Falaise, abandoning most of their equipment along the way. The German units broke up, stragglers and small parties making their way east – Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters described them as ‘fleeing, disorganised and demoralised battle groups’ – as the Allies tried to keep up the momentum pursuing what appeared to be a broken enemy. The soldiers, equipment and vehicles of both sides raced to the Seine, where the Americans established a number of small bridgeheads. There was no prospect of a ‘Seine front’ as Hitler hoped, and an assortment of ferries and small craft moved what was left of the German army to the eastern bank. This was a dramatic situation, not unlike Dunkirk, with Allied artillery and fighter-bombers pounding the evacuation sites, but 25,000 vehicles and an uncertain number of men were transported, to form the nucleus of new combat units. Ludewig scarcely conveys the tense atmosphere as soldiers struggled to find a way across the river by any means; nor does he speculate on their state of mind, caught perhaps between a realisation that becoming a POW made good sense, and a desire to defend the homeland – already a landscape of bombed ruins – at all costs.

More might have been saved from the retreat but for Hitler’s irrational order to keep 185,000 German troops tied up as garrisons in the ports of the French west and north to stop the Allies using them for their own logistical operations. But the Allied armies had already swept far beyond them, and the only result of Hitler’s strategy was a pounding of the garrisons by Allied bombers that killed thousands of French civilians and flattened whole towns.

The German armies that did succeed in reaching eastern France and the German frontier were for the first time fighting very close to home. Unlike in 1918, when the Germans could retire behind carefully prepared defences, the Westwall fortifications were a mere shadow of what they had been in 1940. Ludewig provides a candid assessment of the deterioration. Most of the fixed guns and equipment had been removed by 1941; the concrete was now too shallow to protect from the latest shells and bombs, while the pillboxes and anti-tank gun emplacements had been designed for the use of an earlier generation of weapons and couldn’t easily and quickly be adapted. Local communities were mobilised to dig new anti-tank ditches, but there was no time to set up a defensible line. Every gun that could be spared was sent to the German frontier.

Lurking behind the improvised front was the figure of Heinrich Himmler, not only head of the police and SS, but now interior minister and commander of the home reserve after the failed army coup of 20 July 1944. His desire to command the frontier armies was thwarted by the staff (it would clearly have been a disaster), but he could commandeer compulsory labour, order defeatists to be shot and round up stragglers as they retreated. Malingerers and shirkers too were to be shot as an example to the rest. This time there was to be no ‘stab in the back’, the alleged betrayal of the army by the home front in 1918, which had set Hitler on his political path 25 years before. Instead, the dictatorship threatened a ‘stab in the front’ if the army didn’t stop retreating and turn round and fight. Himmler ordered senior officers to be court-martialled or sacked if they disobeyed orders to put up ‘fanatical’ resistance, while Hitler insisted that ‘fanaticism will be constantly increased among the troops’ and that any soldier not willing to die for the cause ‘will be eliminated’. Ludewig rightly argues that it is difficult now to recreate the effect of these orders on the rank and file (though there is much interesting evidence available from Allied bugging of POW conversations which he might have used). But as the front began to solidify and the retreat turned into a withdrawal to a clearly defined line, there was evidence of improving morale among the army units, which now, at least, had a clear strategic purpose.

In seeking to explain the Germans’ success in stabilising the front and preventing the rapidly advancing Allied armies from entering Germany in the autumn of 1944, Ludewig highlights the role of lower-level staff officers, who were able to maintain some degree of co-ordination and to understand what was needed despite the fog of war being made ever more dense by the stream of unrealistic orders pouring out from Hitler’s headquarters. He also pays tribute to the operational skills of both Model and Blaskowitz, who had to extricate their forces despite Hitler’s urging that they should ‘stand and die’, and in the face of overwhelming Allied superiority in the air and in armour. Model’s insistence on creating secure reserve lines behind the frontier and his decision to concentrate his troops at the south of the German front, to allow Blaskowitz’s forces to construct a continuous line from the Scheldt to the Swiss frontier, were both sound military judgments. By mid-September, around 215,000 troops who seemed to have been lost in the retreat were back in place ready to defend the Fatherland.

There is no doubt that the Allied armies had a lot to learn. As the Germans stabilised the front in the West, the Allies slowed down their advances elsewhere. The massive Soviet Operation Bagration, which destroyed the German Army Group Centre in Belarus in summer 1944, came to an exhausted halt along the Vistula river, and the Red Army did n0t get going again until some months later. In Italy the German retreat from the Gustav Line that summer brought it to a more favourable defensive position which the advancing Allies could not breach until the following spring. Rapid advances over long distances by vast armies (the largest ever mobilised, then or since) brought their own problems: the Allies in France were slowed down by fuel and equipment shortages; Eisenhower was learning on the hoof, together with so many other senior commanders, the complex art of military manoeuvring. The senior German commanders, on the other hand, had cut their tactical teeth in the First World War, and had years of experience of command on the battlefield between 1939 and 1944. Even Montgomery had experience only of commanding a small army in the unusual conditions of desert warfare against a fading enemy. The Allies were at the start of their learning curve, the Germans at the end of theirs.

Ludewig’s argument that German battlefield skills and staff experience were superior prompts some interesting reflections on what have generally been regarded as the Allies’ great strengths: their power in the air and the advantages of Ultra, the signals intelligence generated at Bletchley Park. There is very little in Ludewig’s book about the air war, because the German air force was a broken reed in the West by summer 1944. German soldiers had to fight with little or no air protection. Wave after wave of heavy bombers, fighter-bombers and the high-performance Spitfires and Mustangs strafed and bombed anything that moved. But for all this, the movement on the ground was what counted. If air superiority on such a scale could not produce a decisive outcome on the ground in the summer of 1944, it is perhaps necessary to think again about just how important air power was during the war. Martin van Creveld’s recent critical assessment in The Age of Airpower would find some support in Ludewig’s account.[*]

As for intelligence, Model, Blaskowitz and other German commanders seemed able to second-guess Allied intentions, whereas Allied commanders had a stream of intelligence from Ultra yet didn’t capitalise on it as fully as they might have. That said, without air power and intelligence the Allies would probably have been thrown back into the sea in June 1944. But the issue here, as it was on the vast eastern front, was the capacity to fight on the ground, soldier to soldier, tank for tank, in the last great ground battles of the modern age.

Blaskowitz was sacked by Hitler in September 1944 for failing to mount a sudden counter-attack and later, captured by the Allies, jumped to his death from a balcony. Model shot himself in a forest after his defensive shield crumbled in March 1945, thanks largely to Hitler’s insistence on the failed counter-offensive in the Ardennes in December 1944. Hitler remains a demonic figure throughout Ludewig’s account, a military dilettante convinced he knew better than his generals. Ludewig implies that he had a better operational grasp than Eisenhower (which may not be saying a great deal), but the fact remains that Hitler was the author of one mistaken operational directive after another. It is worrying to think that with a different supreme commander, the German army might have won the war on the strength of its professional skills, but then with a different supreme commander there would have been no war in the first place. As it was, hundreds of German army and air force officers were taken off by the Americans after the war for brainstorming sessions on how to fight wars more effectively. Retreating may not have been high on that agenda, but on this account, it was worth serious consideration.

[*] PublicAffairs, 512 pp., £11.99, May 2012, 978 1 610 39108 5.