Sunday, June 26, 2005

That's gotta hurt, part 2

I've done some research on Max Hastings, and he's an interesting fellow, to say the least. He's a former journalist who's got credentials as a military historian. However, he's more of a journalist than a military historian. The problem is that he can't separate his journalistic tendencies for sensationalism and objective historiocity properly. A simple google search of "Max Hastings" gets alot of criticism from him, both for his journalistic and historical works.

My take, from a cursory glance at his screed about Iraq (in my previous post), and from reading about some of his historical works, as well as criticisms thereof, is that he is a journalist masquerading as a military historian. That isn't to make light of his works, but a blunt statement. Historians aren't supposed to delve into sensationalistic attitudes, unless they're giving the reader of their books a heads up as to why they are, in a particular point in the book.

Hastings' most recent book is Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945. The better part of the book is that it covers alot of first person accounts of the war. That's his worth, as a journalist, to find those and give them meaning. But as a military historian, I have problems with his assertion that the German Wehrmact was the best army of the war. From 1939-1942, it was. But that's only because no other army was able to field a large enough army with enough combat experience to match them, on any level. Yes, the Wehrmact was brilliantly lead by Guderian, Rommel, and others. In that time frame, who did they go up against, that was on their level? It wasn't until 1942 that Patton, Zhukov, Timoshenko, and others started to make their presence felt. But enough about high command.

In Hasting's book, he has the opinion that the US and British militaries didn't match up to the Germans. He probably takes his cues from Martin van Creveld's Fighting Power and Russell Weigley's Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany. I take my cues from Peter Mansoor's GI Offensive In Europe: The Triumph of American Infantry Divisions, 1941-1945 and Michael Doubler's Closing with the Enemy: How GIs fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945. What the latter books deal with is that they believe that the American GI's fought far better than they get credit for.

The reality is that the Battle for France was not the large scale wheeling maneuvers of the Soviet Front. By and large (other than the Fall of France and the Rhineland campaigns) the ETO was a static battle, largely fought in small squad combat. Contrary to popular opinion, the American and British forces often didn't have the materiel advantage that most people think they did. In Normandy, for the first three weeks, it was a rush between the Allies and the Germans to rush forces into the area- and in that scenario, the Germans had the better supplies at hand, even with the Allied bombing campaign. Plus, the German units in the area were a mix of both highly trained combat veterans (Panzer Lehr division comes to mind) and raw units. The Americans mostly had units that were highly trained, but a great deal of them had never seen combat. Let's not forget, the Allies were spending a great deal of time bringing soldiers, equipment, and materiel into France during this time frame. What they had in hand, was largely what they had to fight with. Just because they have crates of stuff at the docks doesn't equivocate with what the guys at the front have.

The Normandy campaign itself was reduced to small squad combat, mainly due to the hedgerows and the close proximity of each town to one another. American units were forced to clear out each hedgerow one by one. This was accomplished in roughly three weeks- and then the Americans were able to unleash OPERATION COBRA. The hedgerow activity and small arms combat (probably best exemplified, btw, in Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan) were overlooked by the Falise Gap and the total destruction of Panzer Lehr. But that doesn't take anything from the American and British forces which created the conditions for COBRA to be unleashed, by overtaking German positions, bit by bit. Highly trained soldiers became highly trained combat veterans. And against some of the best the Wehrmacht had to offer, they were able to clear the ground. Normandy allowed the Allies to unleash COBRA, and the subsequent Falise Gap and ANVIL were responsible for the German retreat from France, which enabled the American armies to engage the Germans in mobile warfare, for a few months. While it's not indicative of a true engagement between American and German forces, it is a testament to Patton's 3rd Army, which he turns into the calvary force that he always envisioned mechanized units to be.

Hastings, and those that support him believe that what happens next is a testament to the German army- Operation Market Garden. They believe, ultimately, that the Wehrmacht was able to stall the Allied drive to Germany at this point. One one level, yes, they were. Operationally, the plan was poorly thought out, and there were far too many chances for the Germans to bottleneck the whole plan. Plus, Montgomery ignored intelligence that indicated that the Germans were in force at certain areas along the path for the plan. That made it hard for the soldiers to achieve their objectives.

What did happen, was 2 Panzer divisions faced off against the British airborne light infantry units at Arnhem. The light infantry units managed to hold the Wehrmacht off for 2 weeks in brutal urban combat (with no air support for either side) until they were finally forced to retreat. Market Garden's mistake was that it represented a choke-off point for the Allies, in that they weren't able to bring their main forces to bear (since so much of their materiel was far behind the lines), and the Germans were falling back on their own supply lines. The forward positions of the Allies was too far from their resource lines, and as such, they were forced to hold their positions until they could reinforce their front lines. That's what actually happened. Even with a successful Market Garden, the Allies would have had to wait until early 1945 to launch their final offensive into Germany. The Allies and the Germans settled into static warfare, once again, in the Huertgen Forest, and the Vosges- terrain which made mobile and heavily mechanized warfare prohibitive. Dense forested canopies, rocky and hilly terrain, very few major roads (or any that would hold heavy weaponry) limited what both sides could bring to bear. Also, fighting in the Huertgen Forest and the Vosges was a shift in operational strategy: to attack towards the Ruhr, rather than straight for Berlin. And the Allies had to reprovision their frontlines, so what the battles ended up being were alot of small unit clashes between American and German forces- and the Germans also had the Siegfried Line. The clashes were brutal, and they were controversial. Too few historians cover both campaigns, and of the historiographies that exist, too often historians take them for face value. This site and article could probably explain the Huertgen campaign better than I could- But the bottom line is that the American forces managed to clear out areas that were defended by the Germans, with troops that were often pushed to their breaking points. That doesn't sound like an army that's inferior to the Germans- but rather, is capable of standing up to the Germans on what's largely an even playing field. Yes, their casualties were high, but they achieved their objectives.

What Huertgen and the Vosges represent, is a unified front (Broad Front Strategy, so to speak) that keeps units from forming salients and having to reinforce the salients. Also, the Germans frequently used hardpoints that were cut off by their opposition as ways to flank and surround them. Einsenhower didn't want to deal with that- so he opted to destroy all German opposition at each junction rather than have to deal with repositioning forces (especiall in that terrain) just to consolidate their gains. The "Broad Front Strategy" also is slower than the mobile warfare that typifies some of WW2- but it was the right strategy for dealing with the terrain and region they were in.

Unfortunately, the Huertgen and Vosges campaigns are overlooked because of the German offensive in December, 1944- Wacht Am Rein (Watch on the Rhine- commonly known as "The Battle of the Bulge"). The Germans' breakthrough came at a point on the front where the American soldiers were being rotated through- where soldiers who were in need of some R&R went to, and other units who were green were sent to. The area was largely a "quiet zone" so the Allied commanders thought it was safe to put them there- but their intelligence was wrong, and that takes the biggest blame for the German offensive being so potent early off. It was a classic mismatch; combat veteran German troops which were heavily reinforced by armor and airpower up against green and tired American forces, at a point in their front where they're not heavily reinforced. The best the Americans could do (and often, did) was to hold off the German onslaught and fall back to better positions. Once the Germans faced fresh units- like the 82nd Airborne in Bastogne- their offensive began to be stalled. Once again, it was light infantry up against Panzer divisions, and the best German efforts to dislodge them failed. While the fault for the German breakout does lie with the Allied high command, the victory against them also goes to the same command. They didn't blink when they were faced with a crisis, and that's a testament to their own abilities, and will to win.

The containment and breaking of the German forces would go from January to February 1945. Afterwards, it was Patton and the Rhineland campaign, where he was able to unleash the full materiel arm of 3rd Army, against an increasingly broken and spent German forces. For the topic at hand, the Rhineland campaign's not important to discuss, simply because the German army was in full deterioration.

One point I will add, is that the German army benefited from a command structure that developed from 1935-1945, and soldiers gained experience with the Rhineland in 1936, the Spanish Civil War, and the Czech invasion of 1938-1939. The Americans and British soldiers didn't have that luxury. The Americans in particular, had a 100,000 man army in 1940- and boosted it up to a 1 million man army by 1941, but were largely untrained, had no armor, and just the bare bones of a military structure in existence. Plus, they didn't have the major combat experience the German officer corps did, coming from WW1. They had some....but not enough. More often than not, the Americans had to truly learn their experiences fighting in the field, for the first time. Also, the 90 division limit for the American forces in the ETO basically meant that only a certain amount of American forces would be in contact with the Germans at any given moment. The Germans did send significant portions of their combat trained veterans to fight the Allies in Western Europe- and they fought well. However, the German forces were fighting a defensive war- and it's always easier to fight defensively, than it is to fight an offensive war. By late 1944, the American forces were not the same forces that had gotten their collective asses handed to them at the Kasserine Pass in 1942.

Hastings is essentially a journalist who occasionally likes to write about military history. From what I've read of his works and the criticisms of them, he doesn't do a great job of handling his sources and his biases well. From the Iraqi war screed he had, he never bothered to research on the Armed forces fighting in Iraq. He basically scanned the media reports. How about reading some after action reports, Mr. Military Historian? Or how about interviewing American and Coalition solidiers in the field? He didn't do that. Which tells me that he most likely research the high command of the Allies- and not the actual military battles as they were fought, unit by unit. He also has a disdain for the American armed forces, that exists throughout his written works. It's a shame because he does some good work. But his historical worth is limited.


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