Military history


BY LATE AFTERNOON of September 5 Colonel General Kurt Student’s first paratroop formations were digging in at points along the north side of Belgium’s Albert Canal. Their haste was almost frantic. Student, on his arrival at noon, had discovered that Model’s “new German line” was strictly the 80-foot-wide water barrier itself. Defense positions had not been prepared. There were no strong points, trenches or fortifications. And, to make matters worse for the defenders, Student noted, “almost everywhere the southern bank dominated the northern side.” Even the bridges over the canal were still standing. Only now were engineers placing demolition charges. In all the confusion no one apparently had ordered the crossings destroyed.

Nevertheless, Student’s timetable was well planned. The “blitz move” of his airborne forces was a spectacular success. “Considering that these paratroopers were rushed in from all over Germany, from Güstrow in Mecklenburg to Bitsch in Lothringen,” he later recalled, “and arms and equipment, brought in from still other parts of Germany, were waiting for them at the railheads, the speed of the move was remarkable.” Student could only admire “the astonishing precision of the general staff and the entire German organization.” Lieutenant General Karl Sievers’ 719th Coastal Division had made good time, too. Student was heartened to see their columns heading for positions north of Antwerp “clattering down the roads to the front, their transports and artillery pulled by heavy draft horses.”* Hour by hour, his hastily formed First Parachute Army was arriving. Also, by extraordinary good fortune, help had come from a most unexpected source.

The headlong retreat from Belgium into Holland had been slowed and then virtually stopped by the doggedness and ingenuity of one man: Lieutenant General Kurt Chill. Because his 85th Infantry Division was almost totally destroyed, Chill had been ordered to save whatever remained and move back into Germany. But the strong-willed general, watching the near-panic on the roads and prompted by Model’s Order of the Day, decided to disregard orders. Chill concluded that the only way to avert catastrophe was to organize a line along the Albert Canal. He welded what remained of his 85th Division with the remnants of two others and quickly dispersed these men to strategic points on the northern bank of the canal. Next, he turned his attention to the bridges and set up “reception centers” at their northern exits. In twenty-four hours Chill succeeded in netting thousands of servicemen from nearly every branch of the German armed forces. It was a “crazy-quilt mob,”* including Luftwaffe mechanics, military-government personnel, naval coastal units and soldiers from a dozen different divisions, but these stragglers, armed at best with rifles, were already on the canal when Student arrived.

Student called Chill’s virtuoso performance in halting the near-rout “miraculous.” With remarkable speed he had established a defense line of sorts, helping to buy a little time for all of Student’s forces to arrive. This would still take several days. Even with the boost from Chill, Student’s patchwork First Parachute Army might total at best 18,000-20,000 men, plus some artillery, antiaircraft guns and twenty-five tanks—hardly the equivalent of an American division. And racing toward this scanty force—so thin that Student could not even man the 75-mile Antwerp-Maastricht gap, let alone close it—were the awesome armored forces of the British Second Army and part of the U.S. First Army. Student was outgunned and outnumbered; about all that stood between him and disaster was the Albert Canal itself.

At what point along it would the enemy attack? Student’s line was vulnerable everywhere, but some areas were more critical than others. He was particularly concerned about the sector north of Antwerp, where the weak 719th Coastal Division was only now taking up position. Was there still time to take advantage of the 80-foot-wide water barrier and turn it into a major defense line that would delay the Allies long enough for additional reinforcements to reach the canal? This was Student’s greatest hope.

He expected to be attacked at any moment, yet there were still no reports of Allied armor. Student was particularly surprised that there was almost no enemy contact north of Antwerp. He had by now expected that British tanks, after capturing the city, would strike north, cut off the Beveland peninsula, and smash into Holland. It seemed to Student that the British had slowed down. But why?

Four times in eighteen days the vast complex of the German Supreme Headquarters in the West had been forced to move. Bombed, shelled, almost overrun by Allied tanks, OB West had finally come to a halt behind the borders of the Reich. And shortly after 2P.M. on September 5 the new commander in chief found his headquarters in the little town of Aremberg near Koblenz.

Tired and irritable after his long journey, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt dispensed with the usual military courtesies and fanfare that often accompanied a German change of command. Immediately he plunged into a series of staff conferences that were to last long into the evening. Officers not personally acquainted with the field marshal were startled by the speed of his takeover. To older hands, it was as though he had never been away. For everyone, the very presence of Von Rundstedt brought feelings of relief and renewed confidence.

Von Rundstedt’s task was formidable, his problems were massive. He must produce, as quickly as possible, a strategic blueprint for the 400-mile western front running from the North Sea all the way to the Swiss border—a plan which Field Marshal Model had candidly found beyond his capability. With the battered forces at Von Rundstedt’s disposal—Army Group B in the north and G in the south—he was expected to hold everywhere and even to counterattack, as Hitler had directed. Simultaneously, to stave off invasion of the Reich, he was to make a reality of Hitler’s “impregnable” Siegfried Line—the long-obsolete, unfinished concrete fortifications which had lain neglected, unmanned, and stripped of guns since 1940. There was more, but on this afternoon Von Rundstedt gave first priority to the immediate problems. They were far worse than even he had anticipated.

The picture was bleak. Before his dismissal by Hitler in July, Von Rundstedt had command of sixty-two divisions. Now his operations chief, Lieutenant General Bodo Zimmermann, produced an ominous balance sheet. In the two army groups, he told the Field Marshal, there were “forty-eight ‘paper’ divisions, fifteen panzer divisions and four brigades with almost no tanks.” So weak in men, equipment and artillery were these forty-eight divisions, Zimmermann said, that in his view they constituted “a combat power equivalent to only twenty-seven divisions.” This force was less than “half the strength of the Allies.” Von Rundstedt learned that his staff believed Eisenhower had at least sixty divisions, completely motorized and at full strength. (This estimate was wrong. Eisenhower had, at this moment, forty-nine divisions on the Continent.)

As for German panzer forces, they were virtually nonexistent. Along the entire front, against the Allies’ estimated strength of more than two thousand tanks, there were only one hundred panzers left. The Luftwaffe had been virtually destroyed; above the battlefield, the Allies had complete aerial supremacy. Von Rundstedt’s own grim summation was that in troops, most of whom were exhausted and demoralized, he was outnumbered more than 2 to 1; in artillery by 2½ guns to 1; in tanks, 20 to 1; and in planes, 25 to 1.* Besides there were grave shortages in gasoline, transportation and ammunition. Von Rundstedt’s new chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal, was later to recall, “The situation was desperate. A major defeat anywhere along the front—which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve the name—would lead to catastrophe if the enemy were to fully exploit the opportunities.”

Lieutenant General Blumentritt, fully agreeing with West-phal’s view, was even more specific.* In his opinion, if the Allies mounted “a major thrust resulting in a breakthrough anywhere,” collapse would follow. The only capable troops Von Rundstedt had were those facing General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army driving toward Metz and heading for the industrial region of the Saar. These forces might delay Patton, but they were not strong enough to stop him. Rather than waste precious time, it seemed to Blumentritt that the Allies would strike where the Germans were weakest—by attempting a powerful thrust in the north to cross the Rhine and move into the Ruhr. That drive, he believed, might be given priority by the Americans and the British, because, as he later put it, “He who holds northern Germany, holds Germany.”

Von Rundstedt had already reached the same conclusion. Seizing the Ruhr was undoubtedly the major Allied objective. The British and Americans in the north were driving in that direction, toward the frontier at Aachen. There was little to stop them from penetrating the unmanned, outdated Siegfried Line, crossing Germany’s last natural barrier, the vital Rhine, and striking into the Reich’s industrial heart.

Von Rundstedt’s analytical mind had seized on one more fact. Eisenhower’s skilled and highly trained airborne forces, used so successfully in the Normandy invasion, had disappeared off German situation maps. They were not being used as infantry. Obviously these forces had been withdrawn, preparatory to another airborne operation. But where and when? It was logical that an airborne drop would coincide with a drive on the Ruhr. In Von Rundstedt’s view such an attack might come at either of two key areas: behind the Westwall fortifications, or east of the Rhine to seize bridgeheads. In fact, Field Marshal Model, several days earlier, had expressed the same fear in a message to Hitler, stressing the possibility as an “acute threat.” Equally, Von Rundstedt could not discount the possibility of the entire Allied front moving forward simultaneously toward the Ruhr and the Saar with airborne troops committed at the same time. The Field Marshal could see no solution to any of these impending threats. Allied opportunities were too many and too varied. His only option was to try to bring order out of chaos and to buy time by outguessing Allied intentions, if he could.

Von Rundstedt did not underestimate Eisenhower’s intelligence of the German predicament. But, he pondered, was the Allied command really aware how desperate the situation was? The truth was that he was fighting, as he put it to Blumentritt, with “rundown old men” and the pillboxes of the Westwall would be “absolutely useless against an Allied onslaught.” It was “madness,” he said, “to defend these mouse holes for reasons of prestige.” Nevertheless, the ghostly Siegfried Line must be given substance, its fortifications readied and manned. Tersely, Von Rundstedt told his staff: “We must somehow hold for at least six weeks.”

Studying each aspect of the situation confronting him, diagraming possible Allied moves and weighing each alternative, he noted that the most vigorous attacks were still being made by Patton, heading for the Saar. In the north British and American pressure was noticeably less. Von Rundstedt thought he detected an absence of movement, almost a pause, in that area. Turning his attention to Montgomery’s front, as Blumentritt was later to remember, Von Rundstedt concentrated on the situation at Antwerp. He was intrigued by reports that, for more than thirty-six hours now, the British had mounted no drive north from the city, nor had they cut the South Beveland peninsula. Obviously, Antwerp’s great harbor facilities would solve Allied supply problems. But they could not use the port if both sides of the 54-mile-long estuary leading to it remained in German hands. To the Field Marshal, it seemed clear that the letup he had noted was real; a definite Allied slowdown had occurred, particularly in Montgomery’s area.

Throughout his career, Von Rundstedt had closely studied British military tactics; he had also, to his own misfortune, been able to observe American warfare at first hand. He had found the Americans more imaginative and daring in the use of armor, the British superb with infantry. In each case, however, commanders made the difference. Thus, Von Rundstedt considered Patton a far more dangerous opponent than Montgomery. According to Blumentritt, Von Rundstedt viewed Field Marshal Montgomery as “overly cautious, habit-ridden and systematic.” Now the Field Marshal weighed the significance of Montgomery’s tardiness. With the other Channel ports still in German hands, Von Rundstedt saw Antwerp as essential to Eisenhower’s advance—so why had Montgomery not moved for thirty-six hours and apparently failed to secure the second-largest port in Europe? There could be only one reason: Montgomery was not ready to continue the attack. Von Rundstedt was certain that he would not depart from habit. The British would never attack until the meticulous, detail-minded Montgomery was fully prepared and supplied. The answer therefore, Von Rundstedt reasoned, was that the British had overextended themselves. This was not a pause, Von Rundstedt told his staff. Montgomery’s pursuit, he was convinced, had ground to a halt.



Quickly, Von Rundstedt turned his attention to Model’s orders of the previous twenty-four hours. Because now, if his theory was right, Von Rundstedt saw a chance not only to deny the port of Antwerp to the Allies but, equally important, to save General Von Zangen’s trapped Fifteenth Army, a force of more than 80,000 men—men that Von Rundstedt desperately needed.

From Model’s orders he saw that, while Von Zangen had been told to hold the southern bank of the Schelde and reinforce the Channel ports, he had also been ordered to attack with the remainder of his troops northeast into the flank of the British drive—an attack scheduled to take place on the morning of the sixth. Without hesitation, Von Rundstedt canceled that attack. Under the circumstances, he saw no merit to it. Besides, he had a bolder, more imaginative plan. The first part of Model’s orders could stand, because now holding the Channel ports was more important than ever. But instead of attacking northeast, Von Zangen was ordered to evacuate his remaining troops by sea, across the waters of the Schelde to the island of Walcheren. Once on the northern bank of the estuary, Von Zangen’s troops could march eastward along the one road running from Walcheren Island, across the South Beveland peninsula until they reached the Dutch mainland north of Antwerp. Because of Allied air power, ferrying operations across the 3-mile mouth of the Schelde, between the ports of Breskens and Flushing, would have to take place at night. Nevertheless, with luck, a good portion of the Fifteenth Army might be safely withdrawn within two weeks. Von Rundstedt knew that the plan was hazardous, but he saw no other course, for, if successful, he would have almost an entire German army, battered though it might be, at his disposal. More than that he would still—unbelievably—control the vital port of Antwerp. But the success of the operation would depend entirely on Von Rundstedt’s hunch that Montgomery’s drive had indeed come to a halt.

Von Rundstedt was sure of it. Further, he was banking on it that Montgomery’s slowdown held a far deeper significance. Because of overextended communications and supply lines, he was convinced, the Allied breakneck pursuit had reached its limit. At the close of the conference, as Blumentritt was later to recall, “Von Rundstedt looked at us and suggested the incredible possibility that, for once, Hitler might be right.”

Hitler’s and Von Rundstedt’s estimates of the situation, although only partly correct, were far more accurate than either realized. The precious time Von Rundstedt needed to stabilize his front was being provided by the Allies themselves. The truth was that the Germans were losing faster than the Allies could win.

*Despite the confusion, horse-lover Student took the time to note in his diary that “these huge animals were Clydesdale, Percheron, Danish and Frisian types.” Contrary to general belief, Hitler’s armies, unlike the Allies’, were never totally motorized. Even at the pinnacle of German strength more than 50 percent of their transport was horse-drawn.

*Charles B. MacDonald, The Siegfried Line Campaign, p. 124. Published in the official U.S. Army History series, MacDonald’s volume and Martin Blumenson’s Breakout and Pursuit together give the most accurate military picture of the German debacle in the west and the events that followed. Another valuable work on the period, more vivid perhaps because it was written shortly after the war, is Milton Shulman’s Defeat in the West.

*German losses in men and materiel had been staggering. In the ninety-two days since the invasion of Normandy, 300,000 German troops had been killed or wounded or were missing; another 200,000 were surrounded, holding “last-ditch fortresses” such as ports or in the Channel Islands. Some 53 German divisions had been destroyed, and strewn across France and Belgium were vast quantities of materiel including at least 1,700 tanks, 3,500 guns, thousands of armored vehicles and horse-drawn or motorized transports and mountains of equipment and supplies ranging from small arms to vast ammunition dumps. The casualties included two field marshals and more than twenty generals.

*To Von Rundstedt’s annoyance, General Blumentritt, who had long been his chief of staff and most trusted confidant, was replaced by General Westphal on September 5 and ordered back to Germany. Von Rundstedt protested the change, to no avail. Blumentritt did, however, attend the early conferences in Aremberg and did not leave the headquarters until September 8.

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