Historian Antony Beevor on 'Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge'

In December 1944 Hitler and the German army were desperate. Losing the war on two fronts, they launched a last great offensive in a desperate gamble to split the Western Allies.

Some inexperienced American units were initially overrun by battle-hardened German soldiers, but others fought heroic rearguard actions to slow the German advance.

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The fighting was ferocious, with atrocities on both sides, and the outcome shaped history. It's a story told in acclaimed author Antony Beevor's latest book "Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge."

Battle of the Bulge Synopsis

Six months after Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and regained key cities such as Paris and Rome, it appeared as though the war in Europe was coming to a close. But on the morning of Dec. 16, 1944, German troops launched an attack. More than 200,000 troops and nearly 1,000 tanks descended upon the 85-mile Allied front, which stretched from southern Belgium to Luxembourg. 

After a hard day of fighting in the Ardennes Forest, the German troops broke through the American front and surrounded most of the newly formed 106th Infantry Division. “With the exception of nine officers and 70 men, every soldier in the encirclement was either killed or captured,” according to National WWII Museum New Orleans.

By Christmas, German troops had advanced 50 miles into the Allied front, creating a bulge. Allied reinforcements were rushed to the front, and by the end of January 1945 German troops were pushed back to their original positions before the Dec. 16, 1944 attack was launched. With more than 80,000 casualties, the Battle of the Bulge was the costliest battle fought by the U.S. during World War II.

In the video below, Antony Beevor talks about the Ardennes offensive (aka the Battle of the Bulge) on location.

Antony Beevor biography

Antony Beevor (John Fry)Antony Beevor (John Fry) Acclaimed historian Antony Beevor has written four novels and 11 non-fiction books—several of which are about WWII including “The Second World War,” “Crete — The Battle and the Resistance,” “Berlin – The Downfall 1945,” “D-Day – The Battle for Normandy,” and “Stalingrad.”

He was educated at Winchester College and Sandhurst, where he studied under military historian John Keegan. After serving as a regular officer with the 11th Hussars, Beevor left the Army to pursue a career in writing. His books have been translated into more than 30 languages and received numerous accolades (“Stalingrad” received the first Samuel Johnson Prize, Wolfson Prize for History and Hawthornden Prize for Literature). He’s received honorary doctorates from the universities of Bath, East Anglia, York and Kent, where he is a visiting professor. Last year he received the Pritzker Literature for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.

Below, an excerpt from "Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge."

Chapter 1: Victory Fever

Early on 27 August 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower left Chartres to see the newly liberated Paris. ‘It’s Sunday,’ the Supreme Allied Commander told General Omar Bradley, whom he took with him. ‘Everyone will be sleeping late. We can do it without any fuss.’ Yet the two generals were hardly inconspicuous as they bowled along towards the French capital on their supposedly ‘informal visit’. The Supreme Commander’s olive-drab Cadillac was escorted by two armoured cars, and a Jeep with a brigadier general leading the way.

When they reached the Porte d’Orléans, an even larger escort from the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron awaited in review order under the orders of Major General Gerow. Leonard Gerow, an old friend of Eisenhower, still seethed with resentment because General Philippe Leclerc of the French 2nd Armoured Division had consistently disobeyed all his orders during the advance on Paris. The day before, Gerow, who considered himself the military governor of Paris, had forbidden Leclerc and his division to take part in General de Gaulle’s procession from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame. He had told him instead to ‘continue on present mission of clearing Paris and environs of enemy’. Leclerc had ignored Gerow throughout the liberation of the capital, but that morning he had sent part of his division north out of the city against German positions around Saint-Denis.

The streets of Paris were empty because the retreating Germans had seized almost every vehicle that could move. Even the Métro was unpredictable because of the feeble power supply; in fact the so-called ‘City of Light’ was reduced to candles bought on the black market. Its beautiful buildings looked faded and tired, although they were mercifully intact. Hitler’s order to reduce it to ‘a field of rubble’ had not been followed. In the immediate aftermath of joy, groups in the street still cheered every time they caught sight of an American soldier or vehicle. Yet it would not be long before the Parisians started muttering ‘Pire que les boches’—‘Worse than the Boches’.

Despite Eisenhower’s remark about going to Paris ‘without any fuss’, their visit had a definite purpose. They went to meet General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French provisional government which President Roosevelt refused to recognize. Eisenhower, a pragmatist, was prepared to ignore his President’s firm instruction that United States forces in France were not there to install General de Gaulle in power. The Supreme Commander needed stability behind his front lines, and since de Gaulle was the only man likely to provide it, he was willing to support him.

Neither de Gaulle nor Eisenhower wanted the dangerous chaos of liberation to get out of hand, especially at a time of frenzied rumours, sudden panics, conspiracy theories and the ugly denunciations of alleged collaborators. Together with a comrade, the writer J.D. Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes. De Gaulle’s triumphal procession the day before from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre-Dame had ended in wild fusillades within the cathedral itself. This incident convinced de Gaulle that he must disarm the Resistance and conscript its members into a regular French army. A request for 15,000 uniforms was passed that very afternoon to SHAEF—the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Unfortunately, there were not enough small sizes because the average French male was distinctly shorter than his American contemporary.

De Gaulle’s meeting with the two American generals took place in the ministry of war in the rue Saint-Dominique. This was where his short-lived ministerial career had begun in the tragic summer of 1940, and he had returned there to emphasize the impression of continuity. His formula for erasing the shame of the Vichy regime was a majestically simple one: ‘The Republic has never ceased to exist.’ De Gaulle wanted Eisenhower to keep Leclerc’s division in Paris to ensure law and order, but since some of Leclerc’s units had now started to move out, he suggested that perhaps the Americans could impress the population with ‘a show of force’ to reassure them that the Germans would not be coming back. Why not march a whole division or even two through Paris on its way to the front? Eisenhower, thinking it slightly ironic that de Gaulle should be asking for American troops ‘to establish his position firmly’, turned to Bradley and asked what he thought. Bradley said that it would be perfectly possible to arrange within the next couple of days. So Eisenhower invited de Gaulle to take the salute, accompanied by General Bradley. He himself would stay away.

On their return to Chartres, Eisenhower invited General Sir Bernard Montgomery to join de Gaulle and Bradley for the parade, but he refused to come to Paris. Such a small but pertinent detail did not deter certain British newspapers from accusing the Americans of trying to hog all the glory for themselves. Inter-Allied relations were to be severely damaged by the compulsion in Fleet Street to see almost every decision by SHAEF as a slight to Montgomery and thus the British. This reflected the more widespread resentment that Britain was being sidelined. The Americans were now running the show and would claim the victory for themselves. Eisenhower’s British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was alarmed by the prejudice of the English press: ‘From what I heard at SHAEF, I could not help fearing that this process was sowing the seeds of a grave split between the Allies.’

From Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge by Antony Beevor, published on November 3, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Ocito Ltd, 2015. 

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