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.

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