Staking Everything on One Card

AN iron sky roofed the gray-green Taunus Hills on Monday morning, December 11, as a motorcade carrying Adolf Hitler and a fifty-man entourage of staff officers and SS bodyguards rolled across the Hessian landscape toward another of those remote boltholes the regime had built for itself in better days. The convoy sped south from the Giessen train station toward Frankfurt for fifteen miles before climbing west, past the heel-clicking sentries outside the neo-Gothic Schloss Ziegenberg; the cars traveled a final mile beneath a camouflage canopy suspended from trees above the narrow roadbed. With a crunch of tires on gravel, the convoy pulled to a stop and the Führer climbed from the rear seat of his limousine, his face puffy and spectrally pale.

To the unschooled eye, the seven half-timbered buildings of the Adlerhorst—the Eagle’s Eyrie—resembled a farm hamlet, or perhaps a rustic hunting camp. Several houses had wooden porches with flower baskets. Interior furnishings included oak floor lamps and tasseled shades; deer-antler trophies hung on the knotty-pine paneling. But a closer look revealed the cottages to be bunkers with thick concrete walls and reinforced roofs; the architect Albert Speer had designed them in 1939 as a field headquarters for campaigns in the west, including the drive on Dunkirk so long ago. Outbuildings were disguised as haystacks or barns, and a maze of subterranean passages with heavy metal doors and peepholes linked one sector to another. Artificial trees supplemented the native conifers to thwart aerial snooping. Hidden antiaircraft batteries ringed the compound. A concrete bunker half a mile long and masked as a brick retaining wall led across a shallow glen to Schloss Ziegenberg, with its single stone tower dating to the twelfth century. After centuries of neglect the castle had been refurbished in the 1800s, and in recent years it had served as a rehabilitation hospital for wounded officers.

Hitler shuffled into his private chalet, known as Haus 1. Since his meeting with Rundstedt and Rommel at Margival in June, the Führer, like his empire, was even more diminished. His limp was pronounced. Doctors had recently removed an abscess from his vocal cords, and the long overnight trip from Berlin to Giessen aboard the Führer train, Brandenburg, had further worn him. “He seemed near collapse,” one officer later wrote. “His shoulders drooped. His left arm shook as he walked.” In a few hours he would unveil to his field commanders his planned masterstroke for snatching victory from his enemies, much as Frederick the Great had when Prussia faced certain defeat by her European adversaries in the winter of 1761–62. “Genius is a will-o’-the-wisp if it lacks a solid foundation of perseverance and fanatical tenacity,” Hitler had recently told an aide. “This is the most important thing in all human life.” Destiny had brought him to this moment, to this dark wood, and he was ready, as General Alfred Jodl, his operations chief, put it, “to stake everything on one card.” But first he needed rest.

*   *   *

Even a delusional megalomaniac could sense that the Third Reich faced obliteration. Soviet armies now coiling in Poland and the Balkans stood within a bound of the German homeland. Romania, Bulgaria, and Finland had departed the Axis, with German possessions in Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, and Greece imperiled. Gone were Belgium, Luxembourg, half of Holland, and all of France but for the Alsatian enclave and a few besieged ports. In Italy, Field Marshal Kesselring struggled to hold the Gothic Line, the last defensive position across the peninsula short of the Po valley.

German war production was likewise attenuated. The Wehrmacht in September fired seventy thousand tons of explosives, but factories produced only half that amount. From January through October, 118,000 military trucks had been lost and just 46,000 new ones built, although dwindling gasoline stocks often immobilized vehicle fleets anyway. Allied bombardment of the Ruhr nearly halved steel production from October to November, and by December electrical power generated in Germany had plunged by one-third. Mountains of coal accumulated in the Ruhr, even as profound shortages afflicted other regions because those mountains could not be moved. The regime had imposed a sixty-hour industrial workweek with holidays abolished, except in tank and aircraft factories: there, workers toiled seventy-two hours a week. “Heroes of National Socialist Labor” received extra food, vitamins, and vacations in the Tyrol as incentives; defeatism and sabotage were rewarded with firing squads. Seven million prisoners-of-war and foreign workers, many of them slaves, provided a quarter of the country’s labor force for farms, mines, and factories.

To shore up a military now losing almost fifty thousand killed in action each month, Hitler had mustered another three-quarters of a million men by lowering the draft age to sixteen, raising it to fifty, and ordering what he deemed “rear-area swine” combed from the home front. (A nurse’s aide described hospitalized soldiers tearing open their wounds at night to delay healing, “out of sheer terror of being sent back to the front.”) A reserve of more than thirty divisions, including Volksgrenadier and panzer units, had been built to preserve an offensive strike force, even as German armies retreated on all fronts. In October, a home guard dubbed the Volkssturm—People’s Storm—also was created under Himmler’s SS; the joke went around that retirement homes now bore the sign “Closed because of the call-up.” The levy robbed German industry of skilled workers, but by December Hitler’s armies comprised 243 divisions with 3.6 million soldiers, of whom 2 million were older than thirty. If imposing in number and ideological fervor, the force was a pale shadow of the earlier Wehrmacht. Fewer and fewer companies had more than one officer, and some units were so poorly kitted out for combat that they were known as “bow and arrow infantry.”

Secret weapons always beguiled the Führer, and never more so than now. Some were as simple as a rifle that could shoot around corners—tests reportedly showed fair accuracy at four hundred meters. Others required the mobilization of a nation hard-pressed to make even gasoline and electricity. The first jet aircraft had taken to the skies in the fall, flying, as one pilot put it, “as if an angel were pushing.” The Luftwaffe by year’s end would receive more than five hundred Me-262s and Ar-234s, but they remained mostly ineffective in combat—a warplane is only as good as its pilot—and susceptible to accidents, fuel shortages, Allied air raids, and production snafus, including blade fractures in the engine turbines.

No less innovative were new “electro” U-boats with streamlined hulls and increased battery capacity intended to allow longer submersion and far greater underwater speeds than conventional submarines. German yards by November were turning out a new boat every couple days, but these too were bedeviled by defects—mostly discovered after the submarines were delivered to the navy—as well as by Allied sea mines and bomb damage to boats and bases. Well into 1945, German submarines continued to attack Allied ships in waters as distant as the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. But scarcely any vessels would be sunk by the new U-boats, and the entire German submarine fleet sent fewer than one hundred Allied and neutral ships to the bottom in the final nine months of the war.

The miracles of the German jet, the electro-boat, and the gun that shot around corners proved to be no miracles at all. If German arms were to forestall the nation’s imminent defeat, the enemy must be crushed by soldiers conventionally outfitted with rifles, howitzers, and tanks. That killing blow, Hitler had concluded, must be struck in one great, bold, and unexpected attack.

*   *   *

Dusk enfolded the Taunus Hills at five P.M., when two buses arrived at Schloss Ziegenberg. Heavy rain dripped from the pine boughs as a clutch of senior officers queued up to board. Many believed they had been summoned to the castle to toast Rundstedt’s sixty-ninth birthday on Tuesday, but a terse request that each man surrender his sidearm and briefcase in the Ziegenberg cloakroom suggested a less festive occasion. For half an hour the buses lurched this way and that through the forest, as corps and division commanders chatted quietly or stared out the rain-streaked windows. The circuitous route, intended to obscure that they were traveling barely a kilometer across the glen, ended at Haus 2, the Adlerhorst officers’ club, which a covered walkway connected to the Führer’s Haus 1.

A double row of armed SS guards formed a cordon from each bus to the club’s main door; a steep flight of steps, now ringing beneath the heavy footfall of black boots, led to a subterranean situation room. As directed, each officer took his seat around a long rectangular table, with an SS man at port arms behind each chair in an attitude of such scowling intimidation that one general later admitted fearing “even to reach for a handkerchief.” Rundstedt and Model, the two senior German commanders in the west, sat impassively elbow to elbow.

Ten minutes later Hitler hobbled in and sat with a grimace behind a small separate table at the head of the room, flanked by Jodl and the tall, monocled Wehrmacht chief, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. Field generals privately referred to the pair as Nick-Esel, the nodding donkeys, part of the larger circle of Jaleute, yes-people. The Führer’s hands trembled as he pulled on his spectacles and picked up a manuscript. Those who had not seen him since the July 20 assassination attempt were stunned by his appearance; one general wrote that he looked like “a broken man, with an unhealthy color, a caved-in appearance … sitting as if the burden of responsibility seemed to oppress him.” Manipulating his dangling left arm with his right hand, “he often stared vacantly, his back was bent, and his shoulders sunken,” another officer reported.

Then he spoke, and color flushed into the pallid cheeks. The dull eyes once again seemed to kindle from within. For the first fifty minutes he delivered a soaring harangue on history, fate, and how he had battled against “the policy of encirclement of Germany,” devised by Churchill with “international world Jewry behind it.”

Never in history was there a coalition like that of our enemies, composed of such heterogeneous elements with such divergent aims. Ultra-capitalist states on the one hand; ultra-Marxist states on the other.… Even now these states are at loggerheads.… These antagonisms grow stronger and stronger from hour to hour. If now we can deliver a few more heavy blows, then at any moment this artificially bolstered common front may suddenly collapse with a gigantic clap of thunder.

As the Allies approached each other from east and west, the strain on this unholy alliance would grow insuperable. Canada, he predicted, would be the first to yank its troops from the theater. “World historical events have their ups and downs,” the Führer declared.

Rome would not be thinkable without a Second Punic War.… There would be no Prussia without the Seven Years’ War.… The palm of victory will in the end be given to the one who was not only ablest, but—and I want to emphasize this—was the most daring.

Toward that end he had a plan, originally code-named WACHT AM RHEIN, Watch on the Rhine, but recently renamed HERBSTNEBEL, Autumn Mist. This he would now disclose on pain of death to any man who betrayed the grand secret.

*   *   *

It had come to him as in a fever dream, when he was bedridden and yellow with jaundice in September. Brooding over what Jodl called “the evil fate hanging over us,” the Führer had again been hunched at his maps when his eye fixed on the same unlikely seam through the Ardennes that German invaders had already ripped twice in this century. A monstrous blow by two panzer armies could swiftly reach the Meuse bridges between Liège and Namur, carving away Montgomery’s 21st Army Group in the north from the Americans in the south, and eradicating the enemy threat to the Ruhr. Destroying thirty divisions in the west would wipe out a third of the Anglo-American force, requiring Churchill and Roosevelt to sue for peace; conversely, exterminating thirty Bolshevik divisions in the east, among more than five hundred, could hardly deal a decisive blow. Therefore Germany’s destiny must, he proclaimed, be “sealed in the West.” As for the offensive’s ultimate objective, Hitler in a conference with his senior generals had abruptly blurted out a single word: “Antwerp.”

The naysayers promptly said nay. Rundstedt, who would command this great offensive, had learned of the plan only after it coagulated in Hitler’s imagination; the Führer’s order came as a “great surprise.” The field marshal favored strategic defense—“no offensive under any conditions,” as one lieutenant put it. Yes, he had led the vanquishing German armies through the Ardennes in 1940, but then he had commanded seventy-one divisions altogether, more than double the force allotted to HERBSTNEBEL, and those units were far stronger than the current Wehrmacht divisions. The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 had included 123 divisions and 2,500 attack planes, five times the strength of the force available for this offensive. Given the strained supplies of fuel, ammunition, and manpower, and with little Luftwaffe support, Rundstedt concluded that the force was “much, much, much too weak” to sustain a winter attack across 125 miles to Antwerp.

Although uncertain why the Allied drive across Europe had stalled, Rundstedt within the sanctity of his sitting room had told trusted aides, “The soldier can do nothing but buy time for the political leader to negotiate.” His chief of staff, General Siegfried Westphal, wrote that “the distant objective of Antwerp cannot be reached with the forces available, for then impossibly long flanks would be exposed on both sides of the attacking wedge.… The entire planning of this offensive strikes me as failing to meet the demands of reality.” Hitler brushed aside the objections, telling Rundstedt, “I think I am a better judge of this than you are, Field Marshal. I have come here to help you.”

Even Model, who claimed to love those who craved the impossible, also demurred, calling the Führer’s scheme “damned moldy.” The Army Group B commander would provide most of the forces for HERBSTNEBEL, and like Rundstedt he considered Antwerp far too ambitious. Both men favored a truncated plan—dubbed “the small solution,” in contrast to Hitler’s grandiose “large solution”—with a wheeling movement north around Aachen that would cut off the U.S. First and Ninth Armies and destroy ten to fifteen divisions. The two army commanders anointed by the Führer to lead the attack, Generals Hasso von Manteuffel and Sepp Dietrich, had also endorsed the small solution in a six-hour conference with Hitler at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin on December 2. Not only was the small solution better suited to the force available, they argued, but Wehrmacht soldiers would fight desperately to reclaim the swatch of Germany now held by the Americans.

The Führer was unmoved. Only a brutal drubbing would achieve the political objective of forcing the Anglo-Americans to the bargaining table. Only a victory as dramatic as the Reich’s recapture of Antwerp could convince the enemy that the campaign was bootless, endless, hopeless. He promised thirty-eight divisions for the attack, supported by two thousand planes—an enduring fantasy that had taken on a life of its own even as autumn fighting further whittled away German strength. The final attack blueprint approved by Hitler on December 9 was virtually unchanged from the vision he had revealed earlier in the fall. A copy sent to Rundstedt was annotated by the Führer: “Not to Be Altered.”

*   *   *

And thus was the plan fixed: three armies under Model’s Army Group B would attack across a hundred-mile front. The first echelon alone included two hundred thousand men in twenty divisions with two thousand artillery pieces and nearly a thousand tanks and assault guns. A second wave carried five more divisions and hundreds of additional panzers. A fourth field army, the Fifteenth, was positioned north of the assault area with six infantry divisions to tie up American forces near Aachen. In all, Model had thirty or more divisions for HERBSTNEBEL.

With the possible exception of the Vosges, no more rugged terrain existed between the North Sea and the Alps than the coniferous Ardennes, a shaggy, corrugated tableland less than 2,500 feet high but fissured with deep stream beds across the sixty miles between the German border and the Meuse. The French belief that it was an “almost impenetrable massif” had been disproved in August 1914, when four German armies with more than a million men eventually poured through the Ardennes. Between wars, the governments of Belgium and Luxembourg, keen to exploit automobile tourisme, built ten all-weather roads that led westward from the German frontier across many stout stone bridges. Still, the delusion of impermeability prevailed until May 1940, when the Germans shoved a mechanized host through the region in three days, nearly twice as fast as predicted even in Wehrmacht march tables, with young Rommel’s panzer division grabbing the first bridgehead across the Meuse at Dinant.

Hitler had been consumed for weeks by the minutest details of HERBSTNEBEL, from the provision to each shock trooper of at least three blankets to the banishment of Alsatian troops from frontline units as security risks. Of all the German armored vehicles built in November, 1,345 were shipped to the west, only 288 to the east. Divisions in Norway had been required to divert many of their motor vehicles to the Western Front. Campaign planners intended to replicate 1940, one officer said: “to hold the reins loose, and let the armies race.” Jodl wanted German forces on the Meuse within forty-eight hours; field commanders believed four to six days was a more realistic timetable. No significant interference was expected from Montgomery’s 21st Army Group until the panzer vanguard had reached Brussels. Vague plans called for summoning Wehrmacht reinforcements from Italy, Denmark, and Norway after Antwerp fell.

Two tank armies would form the point of the spear: on the right wing, in the north, the main blow would be delivered by Sixth Panzer Army under Dietrich, a squat former butcher’s apprentice with an underslung jaw, a harpoon nose, and a taste for schnapps. A tank sergeant in World War I and a favorite of Hitler’s since the early 1920s, Dietrich had once led the Führer’s Mercedes-mounted personal guard, which he armed with revolvers and hippopotamus whips. More recently he had commanded SS troops in France, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Russia, reportedly boasting in 1943 that of his original 23,000 men, only 30 remained alive and uncaptured. He was accused in one hideous episode of ordering more than four thousand Russians shot in retaliation for six German deaths. Rundstedt deemed Dietrich “decent but stupid,” yet accepted him as the paramount tactical commander for HERBSTNEBEL. Dietrich would lead nine divisions with more than 1,000 guns and 120,000 soldiers, a third of them in Waffen-SS units. His lead echelons included five hundred tanks and assault guns, many of which were to funnel into Belgium through the five-mile-wide Losheim Gap—an upland passage exploited by German horse cavalry in 1914 and by Rommel in 1940—then hurry down five roads to reach the Meuse near Liège before wheeling northwest toward Antwerp.

On the left, Fifth Panzer Army with seven divisions was to sweep to the Meuse through southern Belgium and Luxembourg, shielding Dietrich’s flank against counterattack from the southwest. Manteuffel, the Fifth Panzer commander, an elfin five-foot-two and 120 pounds, was a veteran of both Russia and Africa, tormented by migraines but described in one efficiency report as “a daredevil, a bold and dashing leader.” His army had received a thousand artillery tubes and ample ammunition, but Manteuffel fretted more about fuel: hilly terrain and icy roads, he warned, required two to five times the standard petrol allocation. Model’s logisticians had calculated that four and a half million gallons would suffice to reach the Meuse, plus another four million to seize Antwerp; only three million gallons had been delivered to the armies so far, much of it stockpiled far to the rear, in the Rhine valley. “If you need anything,” Model advised, “take it from the Americans.” Even more strapped was the German Seventh Army, positioned with seven divisions on the far left wing as another shield against counterattack from the southern flank; Hitler ordered Himmler to round up two thousand horses to enhance its mobility.

A thousand trains beginning in early December had hauled the HERBSTNEBEL legions across the Rhine, where they disembarked at night between Trier and München-Gladbach before marching in darkness toward the front. Security remained paramount. No open fires were allowed; to minimize smoke, only charcoal could be used for cooking. Any officer initiated into the plan took multiple secrecy oaths and then was forbidden to travel by airplane lest he be shot down and captured. Gestapo agents sniffed for leaks. Manteuffel personally started a rumor—by means of loud, theatrical dinner conversation at a restaurant—that his army intended to attack through the Saar in January.

Maps remained sealed until the eleventh hour. No motor vehicles could approach within eight kilometers of the front line, a restriction that hampered reconnaissance and artillery coordination. To forestall deserters, only on the final night would shock troops move into their assault trenches. Storch planes buzzing low overhead provided “noise curtains” to conceal engine sounds. The attack, originally scheduled for late November and then postponed until December 10, had been delayed again for nearly a week to stockpile more fuel and permit further positioning. Null Tag—Zero Day—now was fixed for Saturday, December 16, the date celebrated as the birthday of that most exquisite German, Ludwig van Beethoven.

*   *   *

In the club’s cellar Hitler brought his two-hour oration to a close, eyes still bright, voice still strong. He would repeat the performance again the following night to a second tranche of senior generals.

“The army must gain a victory.… The German people can no longer endure the heavy bombing attacks,” he told them. “We have many exhausted troops. The enemy also has exhausted troops, and he has lost a lot of blood.” Reich intelligence estimated that the Americans alone “have lost about 240,000 men within a period of hardly three weeks.” (This figure bore no relation to reality.) “Technically,” he said, “both sides are equal.”

The central weather office in Berlin predicted poor flying weather over the Ardennes for a week; that would negate Allied air superiority. “Troops must act with brutality and show no human inhibitions,” Hitler said. “A wave of fright and terror must precede the troops.”

War is of course a test of endurance for those involved.… Wars are finally decided when one side or the other realizes that the war as such can no longer be won. Our most important task is to force the enemy to realize this. He can never reckon upon us surrendering. Never! Never!

Finally spent, Hitler ended his monologue. Rundstedt rose slowly from his chair, the field-gray apotheosis of Prussian dignity. On behalf of his generals, he pledged loyalty to the Führer and vowed that they would not disappoint him. Hardly a month earlier, the field marshal had voiced “grave doubts” about this desperate scheme. Now he proved that he too was one of the Jaleute, the yes-men. He too was a nodding donkey.

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