Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Crossing the Rhine

Breaking into Nazi Germany 1944 and 1945--The Greatest Airborne Battles in History

by Lloyd Clark

From one of the world’s leading military historians comes a thrilling and richly detailed account of the two most critical offensives in World War II’s western theater after D-Day—the Allied airborne assaults on the Rhine.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date October 13, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4430-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $15.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 448
  • Publication Date November 11, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3989-4
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $25.00

About The Book

In September 1944, with the Allies still celebrating their success at Normandy and eager to finish the job, thirty-five thousand U.S. and British troops parachuted into Nazi territory in the Netherlands. The controversial offensive, code named “Operation Market Garden,” was conceived by British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery to secure the lower Rhine—Germany’s last great natural barrier in the west—and passage to Berlin. Eisenhower approved the plan over a chorus of complaints by General George Patton and other U.S. officers.

Allied soldiers outnumbered Germans by two to one, but they were poorly armed against German Panzer tanks and suffered devastating casualties. After nine days of intense fighting, they were forced to retreat, which opened up their flank to the Germans, who counterattacked at the Battle of the Bulge. Several months later, in March 1945, Montgomery orchestrated another airborne attack of the Rhine, where soldiers were fighting around the town of Wesel in Germany. This time they won and began their march into the heart of the Third Reich.

Lloyd Clark is one of the premier military historians of his generation, and his new book uses original research to chronicle both battles—examining them in relation to one another and in the larger context of the war—to show how the Allies’ earlier audacity led to their later success. He argues that, contrary to popular opinion, these operations were the right offensives at the right times for the right reasons. He relates the events leading up to combat: the intense power struggle between American and British generals, the extensive training of airborne soldiers, and the growing disillusionment of German troops. And he uses stirring personal accounts from soldiers on both sides of the battles to put readers directly in the line of fire.

Ideal for readers of Rick Atkinson and James Bradley, Crossing the Rhine moves at a fast pace, delivers an innovative interpretation of the past, and forces us to ask ourselves just what it takes—in blood spilt, in lives lost—to win in war.


“The courage and resourcefulness of ordinary soldiers . . . comes through in this vivid war story.” —Publishers Weekly

“The fighting spirit of Allied paratroopers comes through with exciting clarity.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Valuable . . . Clark has conducted impressive research and selects quotes from it well, for insight and intensity, from both sides.” —America in WWII


Main selection of the Military Book Club


Chapter 1
The Strategy of Exploitation
(The Allies: 25 August-17 September 1944)

Private Wally Parr broke the tension by bursting into song with all the Cockney gusto that he could muster. Perched on wooden benches bolted onto either side of the cylindrical fuselage, the platoon followed his lead, their voices battling against the creaking and whining made by the flimsy plywood glider and the throbbing engines of its bomber tug. Up front in the cramped cockpit, the pilots, Staff-Sergeants Jim Wallwork and John Ainsworth, concentrated on the red-hot glow of the Halifax’s exhausts to maintain their position as they cut through the night sky. Their passengers—five sappers and 23 men from D Company, 2/Oxs and Bucks Light Infantry—were part of a coup de main force. They were supremely well prepared for every conceivable scenario, but some still believed that they were on a suicide mission. The men’s singing helped mask their anxieties, and company commander Major John Howard, seated at the front of the aircraft opposite one of the exit doors, knew and respected it.

He peered down the aircraft’s dark interior at the ungainly shapes of his men, their blackened faces occasionally illuminated by the moonlight. Exchanging reassuring smiles with Den Brotheridge, he tried to forget that this young platoon commander had so recently found it necessary to hide from his pregnant wife the possibility that he would never see her again.

Wallwork spotted waves breaking on a beach and signalled to Howard who gave the order for silence. Seconds later, six miles from their objective, the tow-rope was released with a jerk and the glider dropped into a stomach-churning dive below the scattered clouds. When levelled out, Brotheridge released his safety belt, stood up and, stabilized by Howard, opened the exit door. Fresh air flooded into the stale compartment and the recognizable shapes of buildings, fields and hedges could be seen scudding past the void at 90 miles per hour just 200 feet below. Then Wallwork recognized the sparkling Caen Canal on his left and, reassured that he was on course, gave a thumbs-up to Howard. On the officer’s command, the soldiers automatically prepared to land by linking their arms, interlinking their fingers, raising their knees and tensing up. The glider slammed hard into the ground throwing up a shower of sparks from its metal skids. The arrester parachute was briefly deployed and the contraption slowed a little before coming to a sudden bone-crunching halt against a small embankment. When the cockpit collapsed, both pilots were catapulted through the Perspex windscreen whilst still in their seats and their passengers were thrown violently around the fuselage. It was, nevertheless, a successful landing, with Wallwork managing to deliver the platoon just 85 yards from its goal, the bridge over the Caen Canal. It was 0016 hours on 6 June 1944, the Allies had arrived in Normandy and D-Day had begun.

The glider-borne assault on the bridges over the Caen Canal and River Orne and the subsequent operations conducted in Normandy by 6 British Airborne Division were a great success. By taking and holding the left flank of the Allied beachhead, a defensive flank was established which helped the invaders to establish themselves in France. Major-General Richard “Windy” Gale’s division then fought hard throughout the subsequent battle of Normandy, spending 12 weeks in the line, three times longer than the 82 and 101 US Airborne Divisions which were also inserted on D-Day. Gale’s men returned to England having suffered 4,457 casualties. Among them was Den Brotheridge, killed by a German sentry whilst leading his men across the bridge over the Caen Canal within minutes of his glider landing. But even as the division was preparing to sail back home, a new phase in the campaign in north-west Europe was opening, with Allied ground forces striving to exploit their success in Normandy by striking eastwards. Drawing the attention of his troops to this, the chief of the Allied Land Forces and commander of Twenty-First Army Group, General Bernard Montgomery (or “Monty” as he was popularly known) sent a personal message to his troops: “The German armies in north-west France have suffered a decisive defeat . . . there are still many surprises in store for the fleeing remnants. The victory has been complete, definitive and decisive.”

By the last week in August, the Germans were disintegrating, having suffered losses of at least 450,000 men and 1,500 tanks and self-propelled guns in Normandy. The formations and units that survived were battered, their organization and morale severely damaged, and although continuing to fight rearguard actions, they were in no position to stem the Allied offensive. After Paris fell without a fight on 25 August, it soon became clear that fears of a problematic crossing of the River Seine were unfounded. After the claustrophobic and protracted battle for Normandy, the sense of relief for the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, was palpable, and he urged his force on towards Germany. In northern France that force consisted of Montgomery’s British Twenty-First Army Group advancing along the coast, with General Omar Bradley’s US Twelfth Army Group on his right flank and Lieutenant General Jacob Dever’s US Sixth Army Group—which had landed on the Mediterranean coast in mid-August—advancing up the Rhone Valley from the south. Leading the charge for the German border for the British in late August was Lieutenant-General Sir Miles Dempsey’s Second Army, with Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks’s XXX Corps in the vanguard with XII Corps on its left. Horrocks was in an ebullient mood, racing across France; he later wrote: “This was the type of warfare I thoroughly enjoyed. Who wouldn’t? I had upwards of 600 tanks under my command and we were advancing on a frontage of fifty miles’ like a combine-harvester going through a field of corn.” It was a measure of the man that Horrocks, wanting to keep his finger on the pulse of the battle, commanded his corps from a modified tank close to the front line. The charismatic 49-year-old “Jorrocks,” as he was known, was extremely well liked, with Major-General Allan Adair, the commander of his Guards Armoured Division, attesting:

Brian Horrocks was the best war-time commander I ever came across. He was a great leader and I found him much more impressive than Monty. When giving orders, he was very clear, and he was always right up with one and helping one along. He was full of grip and insisted on pushing us along as much as possible.

That notorious grip, however, was not always as tight as it might have been, for in June the previous year in North Africa, Horrocks had been badly wounded in the chest and leg by a strafing German fighter which had laid him up for over a year. Still weak and in some pain, it is doubtful that having been enticed from his convalescence by Monty to take command of XXX Corps in August, he was strong enough to weather the stresses and strains associated with the demanding position. Indeed, within weeks of taking up the post he succumbed to a recurring bout of illness which forced him to his bed as his corps crossed the Seine. In such circumstances it was as well that the enemy was in such disarray. One young officer wrote in his diary that Germans were “surrendering en masse” and “greeted our troops like long-lost family members.” Moreover, an Intelligence Summary issued on 26 August by Major-General Kenneth Strong, Ike’s British head of intelligence, revealed:

Two and a half months of bitter fighting, culminating for the Germans in a blood-bath big enough even for their extravagant tastes, have brought the end of the war in Europe within sight, almost within reach. The strength of the German armies in the West has been shattered, Paris belongs to France again, and the Allied armies are streaming towards the frontiers of the Reich.

For XXX Corps, this allowed Adair’s Guards Division to strike out towards the Somme, with 38-year-old Major-General Pip Roberts’ 11 Armoured Division on its left. There was little to hold them up, and even the terrain was friendly. Guardsman Jim Hetherington, of 2/(Armoured) Irish Guards, had been concerned that after the Seine the countryside:

Would be like Normandy all over again, small fields, heavy fighting and very little progress. [But] nothing could have been further from the truth! . . . We were just tearing along . . . ignoring what was happening on the flanks, and passed through, or by, town after town . . . The few Germans who were about got out of our way . . .

Horrocks noted much the same, reporting that “German rearguard actions were swiftly brushed aside allowing huge columns of vehicles—lorried infantry, tanks, armoured cars—to rumble forward along roads lined with locals.” “Club Route,” as the Guards called their pathway, became a high-speed road. Indeed, 2nd Lieutenant Robert Boscawen, an Eton, Cambridge and Sandhurst-educated tank troop commander in the Coldstream Guards, wrote in his diary: “We had enough maps to reach Moscow, but in two days we had run over them all.” The Guards Armoured Division was gaining a head of steam and was determined to use its momentum to throw Second Army forward, as Boscawen notes:

Still we raced on, regardless of bogie-wheels and tracks. One of my tanks sheared off all the nuts on one side of the sprocket but I decided to keep it going . . . In front the Grenadiers had practically no opposition until the Somme, except shooting up an occasional convoy. The Recce Welsh . . . were well out in front shooting up Germans struggling vainly to escape.

The fact that the armoured Guardsmen were driving through the old battlefields across which their fathers and regiments had struggled a generation before was not lost on them. Captain James Osborne of the Irish Guards reflected: “It took us two hours to cross the Western Front that had been fought over for four years in the 1914-1918 War.” It was not unusual, as the battalion War Diary notes, for the unit to advance 60 miles a day during the last week of August, and the Germans were shocked. Horrocks came across an incongruous sight on entering the city of Amiens on 31 August, later recalling:

And from behind one of the lorries was led a scowling, unshaven and very ugly German officer dressed in a black uniform. I would have disliked him at sight, even if he had not looked like a senior SS commander (which he wasn’t). Roberts was exactly like a proud farmer leading forward his champion bull. He told me that his prize exhibit was General Eberbach [Heinrich Eberbach, commander of Seventh Army] . . . whom the 11th Armoured had captured in his pyjamas during the night advance.

And still the advance continued, with the first day of September being particularly successful. As the War Diary of the 3/Irish Guards recorded: “A long day of movement . . . We travelled 70 miles and reached Arras as it was getting dark, to receive a great reception from the inhabitants.” The Coldstreamers, Robert Boscawen recorded, enjoyed the same welcome:

As soon as we were well into the town” every door and house was thrown open and out from every street alleyway the liberated people of Arras flooded and swarmed around the tanks’ They completely abandoned themselves, rejoicing, shouting and cheering. Old men and young girls dancing down the street climbed onto my tank kissing and embracing me, shouting “Vive les Anglais” and “No more Gestapo.” The bells pealed and Arras was free.

The tumultuous advance continued into Belgium, with Montgomery, Dempsey and Horrocks all keen to ensure that the Germans were not given any opportunity to rest and reorganize themselves. XXX Corps now had some key objectives in its sights which included 11 Armoured Division capturing Antwerp. The senior officers of the Guards Armoured Division, meanwhile, were gathered together by Adair on 2 September for a briefing. Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Windsor Lewis, commanding the Welsh Guards Group, recalls:

It was pouring with rain as the Brigadiers and Commanding Officers, with their staffs, assembled in the General’s tent to receive orders. Most of us expected to be told about maintenance and the general enemy situation; few could have guessed their sensational character.

General Adair’s “Intention” paragraph cut through the air like a swishing sword. “Guards Armoured Division will advance and capture Brussels [still some 80 miles away]—and a very good intention, too,” added the General, wearing a mischievous smile. This was greeted with roars of laughter from the keyed-up and astounded officers.

The 2/Household Cavalry Regiment, the reconnaissance element of the Guards Armoured Division, led the way to the Belgian capital, supported by RAF fighter-bombers. They scythed through the patchwork enemy defences leaving dead Germans, burning vehicles and hordes of prisoners in their wake. By the evening of 3 September, they had penetrated into Brussels and as darkness fell were followed by the rest of the division. Windsor Lewis says of the breakthrough:

German machine guns, anti-tank guns and snipers barked at us. We barked back . . . The opposition was soon overpowered, and the crowds emerged excitedly and over-ran the tanks’ The last time I had been in Brussels was in July 1940, as a fugitive escaping from the Germans. On that occasion I had entered the city from the east in a tram. Today I entered it from the west in a tank.

Captain Michael Bendix of 5/Coldstream Guards recalls arriving in Brussels at 2300 hours that night: “I can remember being kissed endlessly by girls, but fell asleep as I was so worn out. On waking up, to our great joy, there were some public baths opposite and I hadn’t had a bath for a month. The noise of the cheering crowds was deafening.” That night the Irish Guards sat down to dine in the largest café in the main square. As they ate, news arrived that some Germans were still holding a house a short distance away. Lieutenant-Colonel J.O.E. (Joe) Vandeleur, commander of the Irish Guards Battle Group remembers:

Everybody was having much too good a time to be disturbed so a combined Officers’ Mess party went off to deal with the matter, assisted by a Honey tank. We shot the place up and found some miserable little Huns in full marching order . . . praying in slit-trenches. They were fixed up quickly and we returned to dinner. The night was uproarious and we could not get any work done on our tanks and vehicles.

With Brussels in British hands and Roberts’ 11th Armoured Division taking Antwerp on 4 September, Horrocks was immensely proud of his corps’ achievement. It had covered nearly 250 miles from the Seine in less than one week. The newspapers jubilantly reported the advance with Daily Mail correspondent Alexander Clifford writing: “This mad chase is getting crazier by the hour . . . You can’t digest it in the least as you go along. It is so big and so swift that you almost feel it is out of control . . . Our columns just press on and on and on . . . The atmosphere is heady and intoxicating.” The American headline writers, meanwhile, were equally delighted with progress as Lieutenant-General George Patton’s US Third Army made a swift advance towards the Saar. On 30 August, under the headline “U.S. TANKS RACE ON,” New York Times correspondent Drew Middleton declared:

Sweeping northward and eastward at a speed of better than twenty-five miles a day, the American offensive east of Paris has crossed the River Aisne at Soissons and the Marne near Chalons-sur-Marne, threatening on the one hand the main German forces northwest of Paris and on the other the security of the enemy’s frontier, now less than a hundred miles from the armoured spearheads’

The Allies were carried along on a wave of optimism, as illustrated by a diary entry of Winston Churchill’s Private Secretary, John Colville: “There is a feeling of elation, expectancy and almost bewilderment, and it may well be that the end is now very close.” The Combined Allied Intelligence Committee in London believed that the Germans were incapable of recovery and that “organized resistance under the control of the German high command is unlikely to continue beyond December 1, 1944.” For planning purposes, the British War Cabinet used 31 December as the date for the end of the war in Europe, whilst in the United States a Gallup poll taken in the first week of September revealed that 67 per cent of Americans questioned expected the fighting to be over by Christmas. In Washington, meanwhile, General C. Marshall, Chief of the Army Staff, was already looking to redeploy certain American formations from the European theatre to the Pacific whilst cancelling some military contracts.

The foundation for this optimism was not difficult to explain when examining a map—particularly if one equated the taking of ground with success—but alarming cracks, caused by the rapid advance, were beginning to show in the Allied logistical infrastructure. The planners quite simply had not prepared for such a precipitous sweep across France and had relied on a bloody fight for every field and street to allow them to build up the stores of supplies required for a push into Germany. Indeed, logisticians at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) had assumed that the Western Allies would not reach the German border until D+360. Thus, although the two divisions in the vanguard of XXX Corps were in excellent positions to push their advantage home, they were stymied by the need to allow supplies to catch up. The decision to halt Adair’s Guards Armoured Division in Brussels and Roberts’ 11 Armoured Division in Antwerp was later deeply regretted by Horrocks, who wrote:

To my mind 4th September was the key date in the battle for the Rhine. Had we been able to advance that day we could have smashed through this screen and advanced northwards with little or nothing to stop us. We might have succeeded in bouncing a crossing over the Rhine . . . I believe that if we had taken the chance and carried straight on with our advance instead of halting at Brussels the whole course of the war in Europe might have been changed.

For want of sufficient resources at the fighting front, operations were being undermined. The problem was that the Allies could not transport an adequate tonnage of the supplies that they were landing at Cherbourg the 450 miles by road to the fuel-hungry forward formations. In such circumstances, with the French railway system badly damaged by earlier Allied bombing raids and transport aircraft at a premium, Eisenhower was desperate for an adequate forward port. Although Dieppe had been captured on 1 September, it did not have the capacity that the Allies required, whilst other ports along the coast, including Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais and Ostend, were still in German hands. The seizure of the port of Antwerp intact by Roberts’ division was, therefore, a great coup as it was one of Europe’s largest cargo terminals. However, to make it operational the Germans needed to be cleared from the 54-mile estuary leading up to it, and then its mines cleared. The German troops deployed around this estuary were part of Lieutenant-General Gustav von Zangen’s retreating Fifteenth Army. This formation, consisting of some 150,000 men, had left some of its strength to defend the Channel ports and the Antwerp estuary against the Canadian First Army’s attack up the coast, while the remainder withdrew in an attempt to escape encirclement by the British Second Army. The failure of 11 Armoured Division to push on just another 15 miles after taking Antwerp, though, meant that the pocket was not closed and allowed a significant proportion of von Zangen’s force to escape and turn the nearby Albert Canal into a strong defensive line. Horrocks later wrote self-critically of the failure to block the German escape route: “I realise now that it was a serious mistake. My excuse was that my eyes were entirely fixed on the Rhine, and everything else seemed of subsidiary importance.”

Horrocks’ eyes may have been fixed on the Rhine, but his feet were immobilized by the Allies’ logistical difficulties. With not enough fuel finding its way through to Montgomery and Bradley for them to continue with their impressive advances, Eisenhower needed to determine how to develop his offensive. It was a decision influenced primarily by military factors but also, out of necessity, the politics of the Allied forces and Anglo-American rivalry in particular. British influence within the Western alliance had been waning ever since late 1943, by which time its Mediterranean strategy had failed to make a decisive impact on the Germans. The subsequent invasion of France had been launched from English shores and with full British support, but being dominated by American resources an American was installed as Supreme Commander. Recognizing this important departure, Winston Churchill later wrote: “Up to July 1944 England had a considerable say in things; after that I was conscious that it was America who made the big decisions.” But Eisenhower was not an arrogant man and nor was he so insensitive to Britain’s contribution to the war effort that he dismissed the nation from his complex strategic calculations. Ike was also a patient man, but none tested that patience more than Bernard Montgomery. Monty personified a perceived British arrogance towards the Americans and seemed unwilling to accept the strategic consequences of his country’s diminishing military importance.

Monty, the victor of El Alamein, was the most haughty of British generals, but he was also developing into the nation’s greatest military hero since Wellington. Eric Larrabee has written that the shrew-like officer had become something of a military deity by the autumn of 1944:

He walked in the company of the great captains, his every step a vindication of their living presence. Crowds followed him, yearned to touch his sleeve. He had become a rule unto himself and could do no wrong. He wore non-regulation uniform of sweater and beret even in the presence of the monarch, who smiled.

The man believed that he was irreplaceable and was therefore untouchable—a view reinforced by the sycophantic support of key military colleagues in London. It nurtured an unseemly cockiness and self-confidence which made Montgomery as unpopular with the British as he was with the Americans that he so overtly derided. As Robin Neillands has written: “Montgomery was detested because, in many ways, he was indeed detestable. He was vain, dictatorial, obsessive, a sore trial to his peers and superiors and not above tinkering with the truth.”

One senior British officer who disliked Monty and thought him unworthy of the attention that he was attracting was Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder. He told the equally difficult George Patton, who had himself clashed with Monty during the invasion of Sicily, that the contrary British general was “a little fellow of average ability who has had such a build-up that he thinks of himself as Napoleon.” Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Britain’s top soldier, was a supporter but, aware of Monty’s lack of political tact, deplored some of his subordinate’s behaviour. Brooke was even moved to write to his unruly charge when Monty was antagonizing all and sundry in the Mediterranean that he should recognize “the importance of your relations with allies and other Services, it is so easy to create impressions through which you may be misjudged and completely misappreciated.” But the general continued to speak his mind, continued to upset colleagues and did not stop doing so when the war moved to northern Europe. Writing to the Secretary of State for War, Sir James Grigg, Montgomery opined: “The real trouble with the Yanks is that they are completely ignorant of the rules of the game we are playing with the Germans. You play so much better when you know the rules.”

Montgomery’s belligerent stance had nothing to do with an unprofessional strain of patriotism or a petty one-upmanship, but an uncompromising belief that he had all the solutions to the various problems of the campaign. As this immense self-confidence was combined with a distinctly anarchic streak in his personality, Monty could be argumentative and had no compunction in taking on all comers. He was, consequently, a nagging headache for Eisenhower, whose protective British chauffeur and confidant, Kay Summersby, later wrote: “I grew to dislike the very name Montgomery. In my personal opinion, he gave the Supreme Commander more worry than any other one individual in the entire Allied Command . . .” But Eisenhower appreciated Monty’s talents, and whilst his boss in the Mediterranean during 1943 wrote:

General Montgomery is a very able, dynamic type of army commander . . . He loves the limelight; but in seeking it, it is possible that he does so only because of the effect upon his own soldiers, who are certainly devoted to him. I have great confidence in him as a combat commander. He is intelligent, a good talker, and has a flare for showmanship. Like all other senior British officers, he has been most loyal—personally and officially—and has shown no disposition whatsoever to overstep the bounds imposed by Allied unity of command.

Ike certainly gave Montgomery a remarkable degree of autonomy whilst the latter was acting as Land Forces Commander during the first phase of the campaign in Normandy. During this period of “the break-in battle” the British general was relatively placid because he was in control, but as soon as the battle of Normandy was won and Eisenhower’s planned assumption of the land role became imminent, the piqued Monty became disruptive. Montgomery, desperate to remain Land Forces Commander, believing that he was the best man for the job, argued that Ike had too many competing priorities to devote the necessary time to the role. He was not overstating the case, for at SHAEF Eisenhower had to handle all aspects of war-fighting in Western Europe, including the civil administration of the liberated nations, and was an important link between the theatre and political and military superiors in Washington and London. But what Montgomery failed to see was that the American people would not countenance their massive military force in Europe being commanded by a Brit. As Major-General Francis (“Freddie”) de Guingand, Montgomery’s Chief of Staff, later wrote of his boss:

He was, I think, apt to give insufficient weight to the dictates of prestige and national feelings, or to the increased contribution of America, in both men and arms’ it was obvious, however, to most of us that it would have been an impossible situation for a British General and a British Headquarters to retain command of these more numerous American formations indefinitely.

Eisenhower subsequently explained the situation in his official report on the campaign after the war:

[T]he size of our forces and the extent of our front made it necessary for me to take direct control of the land forces operating on the Continent . . . [A] change in the command set-up was necessary . . . due to the diverging lines of operation and the need for having a commander on each of the main fronts capable of handling, with a reasonable degree of independence, the day-today operations in each sector. These operations were to be guided by directives issued from my Headquarters.

Monty was replaced as Land Forces Commander by Eisenhower on 1 September, but was tactfully elevated to the rank of Field Marshal that same day. Churchill believed that promotion, Brooke noted in his diary, “would mark the approval of the British people for the British effort that had led to the defeat of the Germans in France through the medium of Montgomery’s leadership.” Nevertheless, Monty’s obvious pleasure at his new appellation was severely undermined by his frustration at having lost his influential role. Even so, he was determined to remain vocal about the development of strategy, and remained critical of Ike’s ability to be an effective land commander. Over and above the Supreme Commander’s distractingly broad portfolio, Montgomery was particularly disapproving of the location of Ike’s headquarters. The main body of SHAEF remained in London, but a forward headquarters had recently been established at Granville, a safe seaside-resort town north of Mont-St-Michel at the southern end of the Cotentin Peninsula in Normandy. Being so far behind the front line it afforded the Supreme Commander a broad view over the front, was within easy reach of southern England and was situated amongst the forward elements of both the Allied naval and air forces, but it was hardly ideal. With the battle moving further east with every passing day, Eisenhower needed first-class communications in order to follow the latest operational developments; yet Granville had no liaison officers, telephone links or radiophone capability with its subordinate commands, and thus Ike was forced to communicate by telegraph or letter. It was a situation that infuriated Montgomery who felt that the headquarters could not exercise proper command and control of operations, and he later wrote: “This was possibly a suitable place for a Supreme Commander; but it was useless for a Land Forces Commander who had to keep his finger on the pulse of his armies and give quick decisions in rapidly changing situations.” The forward headquarters was little more than a public relations façade which fulfilled the home front’s expectation, and Eisenhower’s desire, for a high-level presence on the Continent.

The location of Eisenhower’s headquarters, however, was a mere bagatelle when compared with what Monty perceived to be Ike’s lack of the experience and skill to develop the ground war successfully. This, Monty argued, was because Eisenhower had not enjoyed the fighting command experience that he himself had, and it had left the American “deficient.” It was a situation that so irked the British commander that he wrote to Alan Brooke in August 1944: “[Eisenhower’s] ignorance as to how to run a war is absolute and complete; he has all the popular cries, but nothing else. He is such a decent chap that it is difficult to be angry with him for long.” Brooke sympathized, lamenting in his diary that Eisenhower’s taking command of the ground forces was likely “to add another 3 to 6 months on to the war!” He also failed to understand why the long-suffering Eisenhower did not put his subordinate firmly in his place. Montgomery was a thoroughly disruptive influence who had made a habit of pushing the Supreme Commander’s patience to its limits. It was a situation that reached a head during the first weeks of September when the new Field Marshal made it clear that he did not support Ike’s “broad-front” strategy. This broad-front approach sought to advance the Allied forces eastwards with the main thrust north and south of the Ardennes towards the crucial industrial Ruhr region. In practical terms this meant the army groups advancing together in a coordinated fashion, with no one formation outrunning its logistics or its fellow formations. A slow but sure way of advancing. However, with Patton’s rapid progress towards the Saar catching the eye, Montgomery believed that the Ruhr thrust was being demoted, and later complained: “we had no fundamental plan which treated the theatre as an entity. Our strategy was now to become ‘unstitched.’” Instead he advocated a “narrow front” of concentrated Anglo-American forces which, he believed, would be far more efficacious.

Writing to Ike on 22 August, Monty opined: “The quickest way to win this war is for the great mass of the Allied Armies to advance northwards” and, moreover, “single control and direction of the land operations is vital for success. This is a WHOLE TIME job for one man.” Whilst advocating the narrow front as a more efficient and effective strategy for the Allied forces, there is little doubt that Montgomery also saw it as a way for Britain to punch above her weight. Stephen Hart has written that this strategy:

Sought a high military profile for Britain’s limited—and diminishing—forces within a larger Allied effort that eventually would defeat the enemy without incurring a bloodbath of the last of Britain’s fit young men. If the British army defeated the enemy in such a manner, this would ensure Britain a prominent British influence on the emerging postwar political structure of Europe.

The narrow front would do the pugnacious commander’s ego, profile and desire for influence over strategy no harm either.

Montgomery’s justification for an “advance northwards” was based in his assessment that to the south neither Bradley’s US Twelfth Army Group nor Dever’s US Sixth Army Group offered as fertile prospects for a strategically influential offensive as that of his own command. Twenty-First Army Group, he was convinced, could smash through the West Wall (known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line), which ran for nearly 400 miles from Holland and along the western German border to Switzerland. Originally constructed in the 1930s and consisting of an outdated series of bunkers, trenches, strong-points and anti-tank defences in need of repair, it could nevertheless prove a considerable obstacle to the Allied advance if well-manned. As a consequence, Montgomery’s desire was for Eisenhower to facilitate an Anglo-American force under his command “which would be so strong that it need fear nothing” to smash the German defences. This mass of 40 divisions, its right flank protected by an element of the US Twelfth Army Group, would thrust north-east through Holland, directed on Aachen and Cologne “to secure bridgeheads over the Rhine before winter began and to seize the Ruhr quickly.” With such major objectives secured, Montgomery would then look to exploit across the north German plains to Berlin and end the war in Europe. It was a strategy that General Günther Blumentritt, the Chief of Staff to Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the sometime German Commander-in-Chief West (OB West), believed sound, later reasoning that:

The best course of the Allies [was] to concentrate a really strong force with which to break through past Aachen to the Ruhr area. Strategically and politically, Berlin was the target. Germany’s strength is in the north. He who holds northern Germany holds Germany . . . There were no German forces behind the Rhine, and at the end of August our front was wide open.

On 23 August Monty met up with Eisenhower to articulate his case:

I said that if he adopted a broad front strategy, with the whole line advancing and everyone fighting all the time, the advance would inevitably peter out, the Germans would be given time to recover and the war would go on all through the winter and well into 1945. I also said that he, as Supreme Commander, must sit on a very lofty perch in order to be able to take a detached view of the whole intricate problem . . . Someone must run the land battle for him.

The entire scheme was rejected for many reasons, not least the risk inherent in placing so many resources in a single attack, but also because of the potentially explosive political consequences of a Montgomery-led advance to glory. But in an attempt to assuage the obvious inference that he was trying to place his own interests ahead of strategic primacy, Montgomery offered to serve under Bradley’s command. Eisenhower was still unimpressed, but he did make some concessions to the British call for more resources, and by 29 August Lieutenant-General Courtney Hodges’ US First Army—whilst remaining under Bradley’s command—was sent into Belgium to temporarily assist Twenty-First Army Group. Moreover, the newly formed First Allied Airborne Army (FAAA) was placed at Montgomery’s disposal, and he was encouraged to develop a plan to utilize this powerful and flexible force to support his offensive. It was a victory of sorts, and Monty believed that the allowances Ike had made showed that there was still a hope that his boss might be made to see the innumerable errors in his flawed strategic thinking.

Unmoved by the optimism that was washing over Eisenhower’s command during the last week of August, the pragmatic Montgomery instead pointed to the various challenges that still had to be faced: the logistic difficulties, the attainment of a Rhine crossing, the breaching of the West Wall and the problems which would be caused by the onset of winter. Monty did not expect the enemy to fold just as the Allies were approaching Germany and interpreted the recent Allied territorial gains as evidence that the Germans were preparing to defend their border in numbers and with tenacity. He was far from alone in this view, with Colonel Oscar W. Koch, Patton’s astute intelligence officer, writing: “It is clear that the fixed determination of the Nazis is to wage a last-ditch struggle in the field at all costs’ the German armies will continue to fight until destroyed or captured.” Churchill agreed, and wrote in a minute: “It is at least as likely that Hitler will be fighting on the 1st January [1945] as that he will collapse before then. If he does collapse before then, the reasons will be political rather than purely military.”

With the strength of the German defence noticeably increasing against them and a lack of supplies forcing Dempsey to halt in northern Belgium and Patton at Verdun, Eisenhower’s advance had reached a tipping-point. Yet out of touch with developments at the front, and laid up with a painful knee injury, the new American Land Commander was not in a strong position to influence matters; and so his subordinates took events into their own hands. At a meeting attended by Montgomery, Bradley, Hodges and Dempsey on 3 September, the Americans made their desires abundantly clear. Here the US Twelfth Army Group Commander eschewed any further vacillation and said that he wanted to limit the US First Army support that he was providing to Montgomery to just two corps and intended to push Patton across the Rhine to Frankfurt just as soon as the logistics allowed. Bradley, whom Ike called, “the best-rounded combat leader I have yet met in our service,” was clearly using Ike’s incapacity to strike a blow for the prospects of his southern offensive. He later justified his thinking by writing:

[The] principal advantage of the American plan with its primary thrust toward Frankfurt lay in the directness of its route to the enemy’s homeland across the undefended front that stretched beyond Third Army. A main effort there would not only carry us past the fortifications of Metz and through the Maginot Line, but it might even penetrate the unmanned defenses of the Siegfried Line. And if in the event it went all the way to the Rhine, it would deprive the enemy of his important Saar basin.

So confident was Bradley that the attack would succeed, that his aide de camp, Major Chester Hansen, noted that his boss sought “to be on the Rhine on 10 September.” The meeting was clearly another setback for Twenty-First Army Group but, resolved to promote his Second Army offensive, Monty signalled Freddie de Guingand that Dempsey was to advance from the line “Brussels-Antwerp on 6 Sep directed on Wesel [the end of the West Wall] and Arnhem and passing round the North side of the Ruhr.” It was a route that the planners had rejected in the past due to its difficult terrain, which included numerous water obstacles, but with FAAA available to him to help overcome such challenges, the Field Marshal was able to add: “Require airborne operation—Operation Comet—of one British Division and Poles on evening 6 Sep or morning 7 Sep to secure bridges over Rhine between Wesel and Arnhem.”

The two corps FAAA was formally established on 8 August. Eisenhower, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, the commander of the US Air Force, and General George Marshall, were all keen to see what the new army could achieve before the war was over. Operation Comet was the fifteenth airborne operation that had been considered to assist the Allied advance since 6 June, but none had taken place largely due to the ground units having swept forward so fast that the intended objectives had already been taken. But now Comet was being prepared in order to throw the British Second Army across the Rhine, with 1 British Airborne Division and the 1 Independent Polish Parachute Brigade being inserted behind enemy lines in Holland to seize the bridges that Dempsey’s force would need to cross. The problem was, however, that the transport aircraft used to relay the parachute and glider forces were also such valuable supply carriers that the RAF could not afford to take risks with them. Thus, as soon as air force commanders learned that their aircraft would have to over-fly German anti-aircraft guns in the Ruhr area after delivering the airborne troops, they protested. The result was that the entire direction of the operation was altered, and a new Rhine-crossing location was chosen which put the transporters out of the reach of the Ruhr’s anti-aircraft: Arnhem. The choice of this quiet Dutch town on the Lower Rhine necessitated a Second Army advance along a single highway via Eindhoven, Grave and Nijmegen. It was a bold concept, particularly considering the narrow attacking frontage of the ground troops and the relatively few lightly armed airborne troops involved, but an early launch date of 7 September was chosen in order to exploit continued German disarray.

As the planning for Operation Comet progressed, Montgomery continued to badger Eisenhower for the resource priority he needed to develop his northern offensive. Consequently, on 4 September he telegraphed the Supreme Commander:

1. I consider we have now reached a stage where only one really powerful and full-blooded thrust towards Berlin is likely to get there and thus end the German war.

2. We have not enough maintenance resources for two full-blooded thrusts.

3. The selected thrust must have all the maintenance resources it needs without qualification and any other operation must do the best it can with what is left over.

4. There are only two possible thrusts, one via the Ruhr and the other via Metz and the Saar.

5. In my opinion, the thrust likely to give the best and quickest results is the northern one via the Ruhr.

6. Time is vital and the decision regarding the selected thrust must be made at once . . .

7. If we attempt a compromise solution and split our maintenance resources so that neither thrust is full-blooded we will prolong the war.

8. I consider the problem viewed as above is very simple and clear-cut.

9. The matter is of such vital importance that I feel sure you will agree that a decision on the above lines is required at once. If you are coming this way perhaps you would look in and discuss it . . . Do not feel I can leave this battle just at present.

When Eisenhower received the message on the evening of 5 September, he was exasperated: didn’t the man know when to stop struggling? Was Montgomery so na’ve as to believe that a “full-blooded thrust towards Berlin . . . was politically viable? It did not help that Monty’s signal had crossed with a new directive sent by Ike to his commanders to reiterate and clarify his position. In it the Supreme Commander emphasized his desire to stretch the Germans and provide two alternative routes into Germany by striking at both the Ruhr and the Saar. Although he said that the Saar operation ‘should be started as soon as possible to forestall the enemy in this sector,” he also emphasized that the element of US Twelfth Army Group “operating north-west of the Ardennes against the Ruhr must first be adequately supported.” Although this was not so very different from what had been decided in Ike’s absence at the 3 September meeting, there was one important difference: whilst SHAEF perceived the two thrusts as a coordinated Allied effort, both Montgomery and Bradley recognized that they were becoming increasingly disassociated with US Twelfth Army Group paying little more than lip-service to the priority that the Supreme Commander attached to the British Ruhr thrust. As a result, Montgomery hoped that Eisenhower would reinforce the northern advance in a reply to his latest signal.