Patton and Combined Arms - The Battle of the Bulge
The following article will show the reader Patton's belief in Combined Arms, and will use the Battle of the Bulge as an example of how this was employed.
NOTE: the following article is taken from Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939, Roger J. Spiller General Editor, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press; Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 1992
The U.S. Third Army at the Battle of the Bulge, 1944
Dr. Michael D. Pearlman
On 15 December 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, gave Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, commander in chief, British 21st Army Group, permission "to hop over to England" to spend Christmas with his son. Meanwhile, intelligence reports on the German Army were identifying more than normal amounts of railroad movement by the enemy, signs of engineers with bridging equipment, and requests for aerial reconnaissance around the Ardennes Forest. Nonetheless, the Allied high command remained confident that the Germans were doing nothing truly significant. On his part, Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley, commander of the U.S. 12th Army Group, expected just a local "spoiling" or a "diversionary attack" by the Germans and went off to visit Eisenhower for a game of whist.
At dawn the next day, 16 December, two German panzer armies... launched an attack on the U.S. VIII Corps and the right wing of the V Corp at rest in front of the Ardennes Forest. This onslaught, according to Adolf Hitler's plan, would split the British and the American forces in the European Theater of Operations (ETO); isolate the British and Canadians in the north; and open a corridor to Antwerp, the principal Allied port in northwestern Europe (see map 14). Hitler told his subordinates that a great victory on the Western Front would "bring down this artificial coalition with a crash."
The Allies were shocked. "No Goddamned fool would do it," said Bradley's G2 (assistant chief of staff for military intelligence). Not everyone, however, was completely astonished. In August 1944, when Eisenhower's own G2 was writing that "the end of the war in Europe [is] within sight," the G2 of the U.S. Third Army, Colonel Oscar W. Koch, remained cautious and alert. According to Koch, the withdrawal of the Wehrmacht from Normandy "had not been a rout or [a] mass collapse." He warned that the Germans would "wage a last-ditch struggle in the field at all costs."
In the succeeding months from August to mid-December, Koch kept his eyes on quiet sectors adjacent to the U.S. Third Army. He and its commander, Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr., recognized that inactivity can foreshadow an enemy assault. Because the Germans were not under attack in front of the Ardennes Forest, it was the very place where they might choose to build up their strength. Koch, at a staff meeting on 9 December, specifically said that the Germans might be concentrating their combat power opposite the VIII Corps at the Ardennes.
Koch's boss, Patton, had no interest in heading north toward the VIII Corps, since Germany, his objective, was due east. For months, he had been planning "to go through the Siegfried Line [Germany's border fortifications] like **** through a goose." Nonetheless, after Koch's briefing on 9 December, he tasked his staff members to "be in a position to meet whatever happens." Thereafter, they began to survey the road net and bridges leading from Third Army's sector north to the Ardennes.
Patton, despite his own premonitions and plans, initially underestimated the strength of the German offensive launched on the 16th. He had been angry and embarrassed that elements of the First Army, to his north, and the 6th Army Group, to his south, had already reached Germany before his own troops. (They "made a monkey of me," he complained.) Now that he had finally battered his way through the defended towns of the province of Lorraine and the forts of the Maginot Line, he wished to move in only one direction, straight across the Saar River into enemy territory. Nonetheless, on 18 December, after Bradley showed him the extent and size of the German penetrations in the Ardennes, Patton responded that he would send one of his four army corps north within twenty-four hours. That contingent (III Corps) had been a planning cell removed from direct contact with the enemy. Now Patton would transfer three divisions to its command, approximately 50,000 men, to contain the German onslaught on the southern shoulder of the bulge. Meanwhile, Patton also planned to send another corps, an additional 50,000 men, northeast to cut the enemy salient at its base and trap the Germans, preventing their escape.
Not the least of Patton's many contributions during this operation (which Americans would call the Battle of the Bulge) was his style of leadership and his manner of command. Patton, according to Bradley, "naturally radiated unbound confidence and dogged determination." It was now his outspoken conviction that Germany's surprise attack was not a defeat for the Anglo-American coalition but, instead, a great opportunity for the Allied armies. In mid-August, the Allies had failed to destroy the entire German Seventh Army in France when they allowed [tens of thousands of]... enemy soldiers to escape through the Argentan-Falaise gap in Normandy. After that, supply shortages (especially gasoline fuel), constant rain, and stubborn German resistance on broken terrain dramatically limited mobility. It took Patton's Third Army sixteen miserable weeks to fight its way across Lorraine (approximately seventy-five miles wide). Now, in December, as the Germans moved out from behind their fortifications, exposing their combat assets and logistical tail, a brand new chance at a decisive victory existed-if the Allies were fast, daring, and aggressive. (Bradley later called it "a 'Falaise Gap' on a far grander scale. But this time we would have to act with much greater speed and boldness" than the Allies had done in August.)....
Between 19 and 23 December, in winter storms, the line and staff of the U.S. Third Army relocated 50 to 150 miles north. On unfamiliar roads and quagmires (after five weeks of steady rain from November to December), they deployed 133,178 motor vehicles; a new network of depots and dumps for 62,000 tons of supplies; 20,000 miles of field wire for a new communications network; numerous field and evacuation hospitals; and thousands of new terrain maps for troops entering a brand new sector. "It was," said a syndicated newspaper correspondent then serving on Patton's staff, "all wrought quietly and efficiently by a teamwork without parallel in the ETO, a teamwork rooted deeply in great know-how, in great confidence in itself and its Commander, and in great fighting spirit."
Patton, however, was not satisfied just moving his army north. His comment about letting the Germans go to Paris was only half in jest. If he had the authority, he would have let the Germans drive another fifty miles west and then cut the base of their salient. Eisenhower, having other responsibilities, could not be quite this daring. He already had committed the only strategic reserves he had, the U.S. 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions, to hold the transportation hubs and bottlenecks at the northern and southern shoulders of the German bulge.
The 82d, at St. Vith, was in the First Army's area of operations. The 101st, at Bastogne, was Patton's responsibility. Meanwhile, Hitler declared that his panzer armies "would crush everything in their path."
Patton, always looking to strike a decisive blow that could end the war then and there, would have preferred to bypass Bastogne and head straight for St. Vith, where he could rope off and destroy the entire German salient. Eisenhower, however, insisted that the 101st be rescued, although many of those cocky paratroopers later claimed that they were doing quite well on their own. (One said, "So they got us surrounded again, the poor bastards!") Whether the airborne divisions needed help or not, Patton, under orders, dispatched the 4th Armored Division, his favorite division, to relieve Bastogne.
What Patton was to the operational art of war, the 4th Armored Division was to tactics: the U.S. Army's most skillful practitioner of flexibility, initiative, and agility. "Speed, speed. Obsessiveness with speed permeated our lives," recalled a division sergeant; "no one even had to tell us; there were no orders from Patton to move faster." The 4th was one of only two divisions in the ETO to win a Presidential Unit Citation, the other one being the 101st Airborne Division, largely for its own exploits at Bastogne....
Under Wood's tutelage, the [4th Armored] division had developed an extremely flexible form of command and control that today is called "mission type orders." "Due to the swift movement of events" between July and September, "it was necessary," according to 4th Armored Division personnel, to "permit a latitude of decision to staff officers and subordinate commanders that at first appeared radical. On closer examination, however, the advantage of this system became apparent. It permitted the officer on the spot ... to make a decision quickly and take action when it was most needed and when it would do the most good."
This flexibility was necessary during the 4th Division's passage to Bastogne, 150 miles north. The lead unit of its relief column was the 37th Tank Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Creighton W. Abrams, a future Army chief of staff (1972-74). In World War II, Abrams won two Distinguished Service Crosses, two Silver Stars, a Bronze Star, and an accolade from Patton: "I'm supposed to be the best tank commander in the Army, but I have a peer-Abe Abrams."
Although Time magazine called the 37th Tank Battalion "a fearsome weapon of destruction," it was far from being at its best in late December 1944. When dispatched to Bastogne, it was short 230 men and 34 tanks-one-half of its organic firepower. It might never have arrived near Bastogne at all without close air support from the XIX Tactical Air Command and its P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers, each plane armed with eight .50-caliber machine guns, rockets, and bombs to suppress German tanks and artillery.
The Army Air Forces (AAF) in World War II took great pride in flexibility, its capstone manual claiming that "the inherent flexibility of air power is its greatest asset. This flexibility," it continued, "makes it possible to employ the whole weight of the available air power against selected areas in turn." At the beginning of the war, the AAF had virtually no capability for accurate and effective close air support. By 1944, however, it had developed and fielded the best fighter-bombers (P-47s) in any arsenal. It had also perfected a surface-to-air communications system that enabled tanks and planes to maneuver together, identifying targets of opportunity for one another as they appeared without warning on the battlefield. This, by comparison, was a far more flexible system of close air support than any the Germans had ever fielded, the Luftwaffe being used in prearranged missions for prepared breakthroughs on static enemy positions.
The 4th Armored Division, despite close air support, was still out gunned on the ground by the time it arrived within striking distance of Bastogne, but the Americans maneuvered their weapons with greater rapidity. Therefore, Abrams' immediate superior decided to skirt heavily defended enemy positions by taking secondary roads-a more time consuming but less-direct procedure. Abrams was about to proceed as directed when he observed C-47 aircraft dropping supplies on Bastogne. Convinced that American troops there were in desperate straits, he immediately changed his approach plan to the direct route (forgetting, however, to inform his commanding officer). After the first tanks of the battalion fought their way into the outskirts of Bastogne on 25 December-the day after Patton said they would arrive-Abrams received a radio inquiry from his superior: the colonel asked him to consider a breakthrough attempt and linkup with the paratroopers that night.
One would have liked to end the story of the Battle of the Bulge with the linkup at Bastogne. The airborne troops' resistance and their relief by U.S. armor was surely one of the great exploits in the history of the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, as Patton recognized from the beginning of the entire operation, Bastogne was just a road junction at the waist of the bulge. As such, it should not have become the ultimate Allied objective. Instead, the decisive point of the campaign should have been a linkup from the north and the south somewhere at the base of the German salient. There, the Allied armies could trap all the Germans they had not killed or captured. However, the Allied high command, especially Montgomery, chose a more cautious but less-rewarding plan pushing the Germans out of the bulge back into Germany.
Patton thought this plan made no sense: "If you get a monkey in the jungle hanging by his tail, it is easier to get him by cutting off his tail than kicking him in the face." Nonetheless, Patton did not get his way and was not allowed to begin his drive into the base of the bulge until 18 January. By that time, most of the Germans had escaped.
To be sure, the Bulge was a victory. The Allies killed or captured at least 100,000 Germans and destroyed 800 tanks and 1,000 planes. In the words of the German Army's official historian, the Ardennes offensive of 1944 "broke the backbone of the western front." Still, most of the German soldiers and approximately half their equipment slipped through the noose that Patton would have tied around their neck if the entire Allied force had been as flexible as his command.
The Army's capstone manual, FM 100-5, Operations (1986), says the following about flexibility:
The commander must foresee developments as far as possible. However, he must also expect uncertainties and be ready to exploit opportunities.... The defender must be agile enough to counter or evade the attacker's blow, then strike back effectively.... Reserves prepare to move anywhere in sector and make counterattack plans to cover all likely contingencies. Once the attacker has been controlled, the defender can operate against his exposed flanks and his rear.
At the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, the U.S. Army fought one of the greatest battles in its history. It did not, however, completely fulfill the high standards its doctrine now sets for itself. It blocked the enemy's main avenues of attack and rushed reserves into the critical sector, but it did not act quickly against the enemy's exposed rear areas.
Blumenson, Martin. Patton: The Man Behind the Legend, 1885-1945. New York: Morrow, 1985.
Bradley, Omar Nelson, and Clay Blair. A General's Life: An Auto biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Farago, Ladislas. Patton: Ordeal and Triumph. New York: L Obolensky, 1963.
Franke, Nat, and Larry Smith. Patton's Best: An Informal History of the 4th Armored Division. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1978.
MacDonald, Charles Brown. A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge. New York: Morrow, 1985.
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