The Battle for the Rhine, The Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes Campaign, 1944
By Robin Neillands. 456 pp. Overlook Press, 2007. $27.95.
Whatever Eisenhower’s qualifications as supreme commander, he was out of his depth as a field general. This is the point of view taken by the late Robin Neillands in The Battle for the Rhine.
Like his celebrated American counterpart Stephen Ambrose, Neillands was a popular historian, at his best blending oral histories into a narrative. His works include The Bomber War and The Great War Generals on the Western Front 1914–18. The former Royal Marine commando was also adept at defending British military leadership, even in unlikely circumstances. This perspective lent his work a distinctive British cast that understand ably minimized its American market and kept him relatively unknown here.
That may change, now that an American edition of this provocative book has appeared, but the change may not be all for the better. Here, Neillands takes the offensive, comprehensively attacking American influence on the planning and execution of the European campaign between the breakout from Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge—and thus raising the often-debated question of whether Dwight D. Eisenhower blew the Allies’ chance to end the European war more quickly.
Neillands indicts Ike on four points. First, Eisenhower stubbornly insisted on a broad-front strategy that did not reflect the operational requirements in northwest Europe. Victory over Germany, Neillands argues, was a distant prospect, best achieved by pursuing a series of limited objectives—specifically a rapid pursuit to the Rhine across a limited front. Instead of focusing, however, Eisenhower saw his expanding force as a collection of armies and army groups, which he turned loose to progress individually as far as they could while competing for supplies and reinforcements—what, one could argue, was a very American model of market competition at work in war.
Second, Eisenhower lacked the grip necessary to make his strategy work; above all, he was unable to control his subordinates, allowing Omar Bradley and George Patton to defy him repeatedly. Bradley was intimidated by Patton; Patton was determined to conduct his own campaign no matter what the cost to overall strategy. Like many British historians, Neillands has little use for what he sees as Patton’s cowboy tactics. He even suggests that the tank commander was a menace to the Allied cause, though he concludes that a good soldier probably lay somewhere beneath the bluster and arrogance. The blame for the repeated imbroglios, however, he lays at Ike’s door for refusing to acknowledge that a commander must command. On the other hand, senior generals in any army are like alpha wolves: difficult to intimidate. In that context, Ike’s thick-skinned political skills arguably kept the American, as well as the Allied, war machine from tearing itself apart. This segues into Eisenhower’s third weakness: his refusal to use the talents of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. This very British viewpoint makes Monty Neillands’s hero. Although Montgomery’s difficult personality kept getting in the way of his abilities, his understanding of modern war marked him as a true professional among American amateurs, and he managed, despite his character flaws, to obey Eisenhower loyally. Neillands paints him as a near-martyr to the Anglo American alliance, a strategic Cassandra whose key insights couldn’t penetrate the Anglophobic fog of senior American officers. It’s worth noting, however, that Monty’s prickly condescension rein forced American prejudices.
Anglophobia underlies Eisenhower’s final flaw, one he shared with the entire U.S. military and political system: he was determined to control a campaign that American resources dominated. Neil lands characterizes American public opinion on this issue as uninformed and indifferent—a highly questionable generalization, given the country’s devotion of four years and untold resources to create an unprecedented war machine and massive military power that few people on the street, then as now, would have willingly entrusted to any foreign overlord. Neillands claims that the real issue was glory: for the Roosevelt administration in an election year, for generals seeking to confirm their places in the history books, and for Eisenhower, determined to prove himself more than just chairman of the board. Though there is certainly something to this, it’s hardly the whole story.
Still, the way Neillands tells it, not until the near-disaster of the German Ardennes offensive did Eisenhower finally do what was needed: summon Monty to the rescue. What might have happened, Neillands asks, if Ike had listened to Montgomery about strategy during the Normandy breakout? What if Ike had eschewed the broad front concept and concentrated his forces against the lower Rhine?
Here lies the central weakness of Neillands’s argument, especially a key point he glosses over: the nature of the military forces that would have carried out that strategy. Britain’s human and material resources were exhausted; entire divisions were being broken up to keep the rest operational. A Canadian army still finding its tactical feet was handicapped by a personnel policy that starved it of replacements. One must add that the fighting power of British and Canadian infantry divisions reflected armor support usually at three times the level enjoyed by U.S. troops, as well as proportionate air and artillery firepower. Understanding this well, Montgomery responded by crafting a doctrine of “colossal cracks”: massive, carefully planned military set pieces that would play to his strengths while minimizing his weaknesses.
So the question boils down to this: even if the Allied generals had been buddies, could enough American resources to give needed weight and mobility to a single thrust have been incorporated into Montgomery’s systems with out bursting the seams? It seems highly unlikely. Maybe more to the point, Eisenhower understood the Allied situation more clearly than Neillands suggests—and at a deeper level than Montgomery, the loyal son of a disappearing British empire, could allow himself to see.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.