October 17, 2004


The price of the last push: a review of ARMAGEDDON: THE BATTLE FOR GERMANY, 1944-45 By Max Hastings (William Deedes, The Spectator)

This lucid account by a practised hand of what went on in Europe during that final year of the second world war addresses a question that has puzzled many people. Why, after putting the German army to rout in August 1944, did it take Anglo-American forces until May 1945 to secure victory? Field-Marshal Montgomery, with whom I became closely acquainted after the war, had his own didactic version of what went wrong. After our setback at Arnhem in September 1944, General Eisenhower virtually called a halt.

‘Failure to win by Christmas,’ Monty told me, ‘all our troubles hinged on that … Patton [Commander, America’s Third Army] or me — didn’t mind which. One of us should have been sent on. Not a single effort … But a million men sweeping on! Then think — Patton in Czechoslovakia, the bridge between east and west. And me in Berlin …’

It sounds like an opportunity lost, but as Max Hastings convincingly shows us, there was a lot more to it than that. For one thing, Arnhem was more than ‘a bridge too far’. It was close to a debacle. It gave the ever resilient German army a chance to recover its breath. More seriously, there were weaknesses in both the American and British armies that made Monty’s dream improbable. Yes, we broke out of the Normandy bridgehead heroically, but with huge artillery support. Hastings points a finger at our infantry training and tactics. We were not as good at infiltration as either the Germans or the Russians. Bluntly, we were less aggressive.

The sort of plunge Monty envisaged furthermore would have depended heavily on our armoured divisions. Both Britain and America used the Sherman tank, which poured off America’s assembly lines in thousands, but was, as we all knew, inferior to the German Tiger and Panther both in armour and gun-power. Of the Shermans America’s 3rd Armoured Division took to France, 648 were lost completely destroyed and another 700 crippled but repairable. That such losses were readily replaceable reflected the Allies’ huge resources; but, as Hastings adds, for men obliged to contest the battlefield against panzers, awareness of the inadequacy of their own tanks profoundly influenced combat behaviour. Hastings quotes me as saying, ‘The willpower to keep going forward under fire weakened as time went on. You don’t become “battle-hardened”.’ I stand by that.

So what kept the Germans going? They were defending the fatherland, which was an incentive. That and Roosevelt’s ill-judged insistence on ‘unconditional surrender’ at the Casablanca conference of 1943 (which the wiser and more magnanimous Churchill would have avoided) strengthened German tenacity. It had other consequences.

Among the many terrible mistakes FDR made surrounding WWII, the demand for unconditional surrender ranks quite near the top, though it obviously can't displace propping up the Soviets.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2004 6:26 PM

From what I read, the Allies demanded unconditional surrender from Germany because they feared a repeat of WW I and the "stab in the back" myth, which then prevented the recognition that Germany had been truly beaten.

This time, the door would not be left open for a "do-over".

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 17, 2004 7:46 PM


No, it was just FDR. The Allies, our own military, and everyone else opposed it.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2004 7:57 PM


FDR was a student of history and made a difficult choice.

I believe he was right.

This paragraph from the article also deserves quoting:

Our bombing of Germany, according to Hastings, killed 600,000 Germans, destroyed 2 million homes and cost us the lives of 50,000 aircrew. Churchill or Portal should have stopped Harriss manic assault on Germanys surviving cities, he declares. Neither did so, Churchill because he was preoccupied elsewhere, Portal because he lacked the steel indispensable to great military commanders.
Posted by: Eugene S. at October 17, 2004 8:19 PM

The Spectator requires readers to register before reading articles. Not everyone wants to fill out the usual online questionnaires.

www.bugmenot.com offers passwords for getting into online newspapers.

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 17, 2004 8:43 PM

There was also something called Winter.

Posted by: Steve at October 17, 2004 8:54 PM

This site will always have arguments about the validity of 'unconditional surrender', but one point is indisputable: by forcing such an end, the horrors of the death camps and the overall moral evil of the Nazi regime came to light. A negogiated peace in say, September 1944, would have probably caused the burial of much of the historical record.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 17, 2004 10:42 PM

OJ: Give up. Its ancient history. "The moving finger having writ, moves on, and all your piety and all your wit, will not recall a word of it."

Besides, you way overestimate the power of the US in 1945 and way underestimate the power of Germany, Japan and Soviet Union. Two generations later the world has changed a lot. Back then then US had its handsfull fighting wars against two adversaries, both very difficult.

Arguably, resources used in Europe would slow down one of the most difficult possible millitary tasks, the invasion of the home islands of Japan. Nuclear weapons were still experimental.

If mistakes made by the US prolonged the Cold War they were made later. In Korea, Cuba, VietNam and elswhere. not at the end of WWII.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at October 17, 2004 11:13 PM

I believe that unconditional surrender was also pushed hard by Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, and other Soviet agents in FDR's administration.

Posted by: PapayaSF at October 17, 2004 11:19 PM


Why invade Japan--the Soviets were the threat.

Posted by: oj at October 17, 2004 11:57 PM


I assume you don't think that the records were more important than the lives that would have been saved and a free Eastern Europe?

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 12:05 AM


FDR was, like most of our better presidents, a second rate intellect who was foolish enough to believe he could charm Stalin into behaving decently.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 12:08 AM

Please - plus, there is no certitude that things in the East would have been much different. Would Roosevelt have been able to turn the nation on a dime to most likely have to fight the Soviets in the fall of 1944? In Poland?

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 18, 2004 12:22 AM


Just keep pushing forward until the Soviets fired on us--the rest is easy.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 12:28 AM


So if FDR as you say was a second rate intellect what are we?

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 18, 2004 12:46 AM

Oliver Wendell Holmes said it.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 12:55 AM

"... the rest is easy."

Spoken like a man who has never been under fire.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 18, 2004 4:39 AM

"Just keep pushing forward until the Soviets fired on us--the rest is easy."

Yes. An easy victory for the Soviets who had overhelming numbers and excellent military commanders.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at October 18, 2004 5:08 AM


Do you remember the scene from Patton when he made that argument to (I think) Bradley or Marshall and was told, quite sincerely, he was mad. That would have been the way everyone reacted. Even Churchill, who agreed, knew enough to keep his mouth shut.

It's like California's three strike law. Germany had three strikes in eighty years and had to be put away for good. You are up against both realpolitick and human nature on this one.

Posted by: Peter B at October 18, 2004 6:56 AM


Put away for good? We borrowed the Nazis and the East became the enemy. By your own standard we lost.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 7:14 AM


They barely beat the Germans--how do they beat a Germany, US and Britain who don't have any territorial aims, just regime change?

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 7:23 AM


Ah, the Starship Troopers argument.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 7:28 AM

Germany was in no condition to fight and the Red Army was at its' operational peak in 1945.

There simply wasn't enough airpower, manpower or armour available on the Allied side particularly since the Russian T-34 was probably the best tank in the war.

Not to mention the impossibility of convincing the US and British people to side with the Germans who'd been killing them since 1939 against Russia, which had been a valued ally and whose victories at Stalingrad and Kursk had turned the war around.

Wishful thinking.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at October 18, 2004 8:22 AM


One need not have been shot at to be an effective civic leader or productive member of society, but it might help when analyzing potential wars.

The "Russia will fold in a heartbeat" argument sounds like the Bush administration's delusion that the Iraqis would hold ticker-tape parades for the American occupying troops.

Please name one country/society/army to invade and beat the Russians since the Vikings.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 18, 2004 8:33 AM


They were in Spring '42 when the officers approached us about replacing the Nazis.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 8:56 AM


The Germans in WWI.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 8:57 AM

I have no doubt that we could have beaten the Russians on the battlefield (the P-51 would have destroyed quite a few T-34s in a few weeks, most likely, and our bombing skills would have savaged any Soviet supply lines), but I do have a question: would we have carried the war back to the Russian border and beyond (that unconditional surrender thing again)?

Remember, Patton was not making strategy.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 18, 2004 9:19 AM


All we needed was 1917 redux.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 9:21 AM

Several things:

Interior lines of communication.

Shortening supply lines vs. lengthening supply lines.

The Russian Winter.

Justifying lengthening of the war to justify, by and large, dealing with horrors by and large unknown, or hadn't happened yet.

Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 18, 2004 10:27 AM

The Eastern Europeans would have welcomed liberation and it's not Winter all year round is it?

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 11:01 AM

The pause allowed the Nazis to place more assets on the Soviet front. The attrition for both Armies in those last months were horrific. Advantage: Western Allies. I don't think the Soviets ever forgave us for that. Tough.

Posted by: Genecis at October 18, 2004 11:44 AM


What is it about you and WWII? Do you miss Hitler? Do you see him as some kind of misunderstood rapscallion? Don't you understand that we had to cut some kind of deal with the Soviets because about 40% of the voting public in Western Europe voted Communist in the first postwar election? Are you unaware that the Soviet Union had more soldiers and better tanks than we did and that its factories, etc were well beyond the range of our bombers?

Posted by: Bart at October 18, 2004 12:47 PM

I'm unable to differentiate between Hitler/Nazism and Stalin/Communism.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 12:55 PM

And here we find the flip side of Orrin's pigheadedness. Once he's latched onto some notion nobody stops him from pursuing it to the ends of the earth. Great when his compass is pointing true north, less so when it isn't.

A Judd Family outing.

"Daddee-ee, we just passed a Saguaro cactus! I don't think this is Mt. Monadnock at all."

"Hush children, we will get there eventually... the globe is round so don't worry."

Posted by: Eugene S. at October 18, 2004 1:38 PM


Ridiculous. OJ wasting time at the wheel when he could be reading in the passenger seat?

Mr Choudhury makes a good point that the Red Army was far more powerful in 1945 than in 1942. The USSR "barely" beat Germany only because of the initial German successes. Once the tide turned at Kursk, there was no more "barely" about it. The Germans fought the Russians and now and then spared some effort on the US/UK forces.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at October 18, 2004 2:29 PM


That's not the flipside--it is the only side.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 2:56 PM

The Germans of WW I did beat up on the Russian Army pretty well, and stripped the westernmost provinces away from Russia, before getting beaten on their own western front.
Similarly, the other WW II Allies could have pushed the Red Army back to Russia, and out of Eastern Europe; but that's not what you wanted to have happen, right ?
Total military victory over the entire nation of Russia wasn't achieved by the WW I Germans, nor would it have been by the other WW II Allies.

Russia's participation in WW I led to the downfall of the Tsars, but why would you believe that the Communist government would suffer the same fate if attacked in '45 ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 18, 2004 3:31 PM


Total victory is an asinine and inhuman concept. Regime change suffices.

Posted by: oj at October 18, 2004 3:41 PM

Orrin believes the myth of German antiHitlerism, but we know exactly how many antiHitler Germans there were: 4.

While millions of Frenchmen fought against Hitler, and he jeers at them.

The myth of the 'unconditional surrender' effect had to be invented to save the myth of the antiHitler Germans, but the same alleged antiHitler Germans also fed stories about their imminent coup to the British in 1940. Nothing ever came of it, and you cannot blame that on Roosevelt.

In fact, there never were any antiHitler Germans.

It was a con.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 19, 2004 2:24 PM

...for Izvestia tells me so.....

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2004 3:51 PM

Actually, Robert Conquest.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 19, 2004 11:52 PM


Yes, that's why I asked why you believe that pushing the Red Army out of Eastern Europe would have led to Stalin's overthrow, or why anyone who replaced Stalin would have been better for the West.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 19, 2004 11:55 PM


Conquest's field of expertise is the USSR, on which you don't believe him.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2004 12:02 AM


He could barely get the Russians to fight Hitler, who was coming to murder Slavs. They'd not have fought liberators. Of course, in '43 they didn't control Eastern Europe.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2004 12:07 AM


Total victory worked pretty well for the Romans. Seen any Carthaginians lately?

Posted by: Bart at October 20, 2004 9:35 AM

Seen Rome?

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2004 9:58 AM

The question is not whether I believe Conquest, but whether you do.

My reference to the alleged German antiHitler plot of 1940 comes (not only) from Conquest's "Reflections on a Ravaged Century," which you reviewed and gave a B.

In the same book, by the way, in the first page or two, he says that when it comes to a question which was worse, if either, Hitler or Stalin, he picks Hitler, though he also admits its a more emotional than analytical choice.

I was surprised you gave the book a B, as he does not waste much time lamenting the failure of religion to stop the march of the dictatorships.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 20, 2004 2:05 PM

Yes, emotion dictates Hitler. Reason requires Bolshevism.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2004 3:06 PM

Dispassion condemns both.

Bottom line, though, there never was any German Christian conservative resistance; and therefore Roosevelt could not have affected it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 20, 2004 9:26 PM

There was. He didn't support it. Millions of unnecessary deaths resulted.

Posted by: oj at October 20, 2004 9:31 PM

In just what way could Roosevelt have supported this putative German Christian conservative resistance?

The same German Christians who so loved the Oberamergau Passion Plays.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 21, 2004 7:31 AM

Sent help when they staged their coup. Backed off Unconditional Surrender so homoriable Germans could surrender. Spoken out about Hitler and Nazism in the way Reagan did about Communism. Etc.

Posted by: oj at October 21, 2004 7:36 AM