Snow & Steel: Hitler’s Last Gamble in the West Examined
On November 28, 2014, the Oxford University Press published Snow & Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45, an in-depth book about Operation Autumn Mist (Herbstnebel, which can also be translated from German as “Autumn Fog”), the last counter-offensive launched by Nazi Germany on the Western Front and, to date, the biggest land battle in U.S. Army history. It was written by Peter Caddick-Adams, a respected lecturer on military history and defense matters who served in the British Army for 30 years and has authored several well-received books about World War II battles, including Monte Cassino: Ten Armies in Hell and Sand & Steel: The D-Day Invasion and the Liberation of France.
In Snow & Steel, Caddick-Adams gives readers an immensely detailed and impeccably researched look at the month-long series of engagements that took place In Belgium and Luxembourg between December 16, 1944 and January 15, 1945 and – due to the salient or “bulge” in the front lines on maps of the Western Front created by the Germans’ initial penetration of Allied defensive positions – has forever been tagged as the “Battle of the Bulge.”
Operation Herbstnebel – the last of many code names given to the Ardennes Counter-Offensive by the German high command – was personally conceived and overseen by none other than Germany’s Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler. As early as the summer of 1944, when the Battle of Normandy was ending in near-total disaster for the Wehrmacht, the Austrian-born Hitler was already casting about for a bold counterstrike against the advancing American, British, and Canadian forces on the critical Western Front.
Even as Hitler’s battered armies fell back on Germany’s western border and the fortified defensive line known as the Westwall (the Allies called it the “Siegfried Line”), the Fuhrer started to secretly assemble a strong force with which to attack the Third Reich’s Western Allies through the hilly and heavily forested region of the Ardennes, which encompasses vast tracts of land in Belgium, the tiny duchy of Luxembourg, and a segment of northeast France. Through here, Hitler intended to push three entire German armies – the Seventh, the Fifth Panzer, and the Sixth Panzer – along an 80-mile front where the U.S. First Army under Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges was thinly deployed.
In the Nazi leader’s grand scheme, the mostly-infantry Seventh Army would hold the southern flank of the German salient – or “bulge” – while the tank-heavy panzer armies would drive west across the great barrier of the River Meuse and strike toward the Belgian port city of Antwerp. If Herbstnebel achieved its goals, the Allied Expeditionary Force under the command of then-General Dwight D. Eisenhower (he would be promoted to five-star rank on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge) would be deprived of Europe’s largest port. This would seriously disrupt the Allies’ supply efforts and their advance into western Germany, and provide Hitler’s armies with vast stocks of fuel, materiel, and ammunition that they desperately needed.
Hitler also had a political goal in mind: A successful Herbstnebel would cause great consternation in the British and American home fronts, especially if the mostly American 12th Army Group could be separated from the Anglo-Canadian 21st Group. Hitler – his generals were less certain of Herbstnebel’s chances of success and therefore had few illusions – hoped that he could force the British and Canadians to do a Dunkirk-like evacuation and cause a break in the Grand Alliance. He also harbored a notion that if his gamble paid off, his implacable enemy on the Eastern Front, Soviet Generalissimo Josef Stalin, would lose faith in his allies of convenience and agree to come to terms with Germany.
Despite the failure of Allied intelligence to see through the various deceptive measures (at one point, the operation was given the defensive-sounding code name Wacht am Rhein, after a popular patriotic German song) and a general feeling of overconfidence on the part of most U.S. and British senior commanders, and despite the worst winter weather in Northwest Europe in over 50 years that kept Allied airpower at bay for the first critical days of the Battle, Herbstnebel proved to be Hitler’s last gamble in the West, and it resulted in a resounding victory for the Western Allies, especially for the 610,000 U.S. Army soldiers – more troops than those who saw action at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 or Desert Storm in 1991 – who struggled in the avalanche of “snow and steel” in the ice-cold battlefields of the Ardennes.
From the Publisher:
Between December 16, 1944 and January 15, 1945, American forces found themselves entrenched in the heavily forested Ardennes region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg defending against an advancing German army amid freezing temperatures, deep snow, and dense fog. Operation Herbstnebel--Autumn Mist–was a massive German counter-offensive that stunned the Allies in its scope and intensity. In the end, the 40-day long Battle of the Bulge, as it has come to be called, was the bloodiest battle fought by U.S. forces in World War II, and indeed the largest land battle in American history. Before effectively halting the German advance, some 89,000 of the 610,000 American servicemen committed to the campaign had become casualties, including 19,000 killed.
The engagement saw the taking of thousands of Americans as prisoners of war, some of whom were massacred by the SS–but it also witnessed the storied stand by U.S. forces at Bastogne as German forces besieged the region and culminated in a decisive if costly American victory. Ordered and directed by Hitler himself–against the advice of his generals–the Ardennes offensive was the last major German offensive on the Western Front. In the wake of the defeat, many experienced German units were left severely depleted of men and equipment. Its last reserve squandered, these irreplaceable losses would hasten the end of the war.
As I mentioned earlier, Snow & Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-45 is a massive literary work; at 928 pages in length and weighing 3.1 lbs., the fully-illustrated hardcover edition is certainly the biggest book about this battle in my library. It is divided into four parts (with an interlude between Parts One and Two) and a total of 40 chapters, plus the usual appendices, introduction, foreword, afterword, glossary of terms and acronyms, and the usual supplements found in a tome like this.
Peter Caddick-Adams, who still holds the rank of major in the British Army reserves and has seen service in the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan, devotes three parts and 36 chapters of Snow and Steel to the battle itself. Logically, the first part – comprised of 14 chapters – covers the genesis of Herbstnebel and the overall situation on both the Allied and German sides of the so-called “Ghost Front.”
Part Two covers the early stages of Hitler’s “Big Solution” offensive and delves into the ordeal of the green U.S. 106th Infantry Division (the “Golden Lions”) in the Schnee Eifel, and Eisenhower’s cool and logical appraisal of the situation, in which the future President of the United States saw that instead of an Allied disaster, he discerned that Hitler’s desperate counteroffensive was a blessing in disguise.
Part Three (12 chapters) delves into how Eisenhower’s troops – from the weary-but-determined GIs on the front line to the highest-ranking commanders, including Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the famous Third Army, Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, whose 12th Army Group included Patton’s Third and Hodges’ First Armies, and Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery, the teetotaling, pious, and often-abrasive British commander of the 21st Army Group north of the Ardennes – responded to Hitler’s hard-hitting but doomed offensive. The drama and chaos of the fighting – which was as vicious and bitter as any battle fought in the Eastern Front – is captured in this segment of Caddick-Adams’ book.
Part Four is the shortest in Snow & Steel: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944-1945. It is only four chapters long and covers the aftermath of the Bulge, its significance both in the context of World War II and its lasting impact on later conflicts, including the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Caddick-Adams also explores the various ways in which the Battle of the Bulge has been chronicled, both in the realm of historical books by such authors as Ken Hechler, Robert Merriam, Charles B. MacDonald, John Toland, and Stephen Ambrose, as well as Hollywood. Here, Caddick-Adams compares William Wellman’s Batttleground (1949), which was written by a Battle of the Bulge veteran, and Ken Annakin’s Battle of the Bulge (1965), which was released 20 years after the eponymous event ended. In Snow and Steel, Caddick-Adams states that Wellman’s smaller-scaled movie about a small unit of the 101st Airborne caught in the siege of Bastogne is far better than Annakin’s all-star, big-scale (but fictionalized) account of the entire battle – a critique which this reviewer heartily agrees with.
Over the past 30 years, I have acquired four of the major books about the Battle of the Bulge that Caddick-Adams mentions in Part Four of Snow & Steel. They are:
- Company Commander, by Charles B. MacDonald
- Battle: The Story of the Bulge, by John Toland
- The Bitter Woods, by John S. Eisenhower
- A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge, by Charles B. MacDonald
I also have a book that was published a year after Snow and Steel, Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: The Battle of the Bulge. I bought it in November of 2015 – one of the last books I bought while I lived in Miami after my mother’s death that summer – and (I hate to admit) I have only browsed through it.
As with D-Day, I have long had an interest in the Ardennes Counter-Offensive. It was – perversely, in a way – sparked by Ken Annakin’s Battle of the Bulge, which aired regularly on the then-independent WCIX-TV station in Miami. Though I later came to detest the film for its fictionalizing and historical/visual inaccuracies, Battle of the Bulge is what put the real battle on my 10-year-old World War II buff’s radar. (As Caddick-Adams explains, the film, for all its flaws, contains enough historical grains of truth to get viewers interested in the real campaign, even though it plants or perpetuates many myths about it.)
As in Sand & Steel, this book’s prequel about D-Day, Snow & Steel is an all-encompassing work that examines every aspect of the Battle of the Bulge. It also proves that many widely-held notions about the grim struggle in the Ardennes are myths and misunderstandings of the facts, As the publisher’s blurb on the Oxford University Press website puts it:
In Snow & Steel, Peter Caddick-Adams draws on interviews with over 100 participants of the campaign, as well as archival material from both German and US sources, to offer an engagingly written and thorough reassessment of the historic battle. Exploring the failings of intelligence that were rife on both sides, the effects of weather, and the influence of terrain on the battle’s outcome, Caddick-Adams deftly details the differences in weaponry and doctrine between the US and German forces, while offering new insights into the origins of the battle; the characters of those involved on both the American and German sides, from the general staff to the foot soldiers; the preparedness of troops; and the decisions and tactics that precipitated the German retreat and the American victory. Re-examining the SS and German infantry units in the Bulge, he shows that far from being deadly military units, they were nearly all under-strength, short on equipment, and poorly trained; kept in the dark about the attack until the last minute, they fought in total ignorance of their opponents or the terrain. Ultimately, Caddick-Adams concludes that the German assault was doomed to failure from the start. – From the official Oxford University Press site
Overall, this is a well-written, impeccably researched, and highly entertaining book. Peter Caddick-Adams draws on his three decades as a serving officer in the British Army, including several combat tours with NATO forces in Europe and the Middle East, as well as his dogged skills as a defense writer and lecturer. He doesn’t write history from an academician’s ivory tower; he has been on the “pointy end of the spear” in three wars, and has helped collect and preserve interviews and documents for the British Army’s historical division, and as a reader of popular military histories, he knows what readers want in a book about World War II battles.
As a result, Snow & Steel is an extremely fair and balanced book that tells a story full of drama and confusion in a way that both young newcomers to the World War II genre and older grognards like this reviewer can grasp its complexities. The Battle of the Bulge, after all, wasn’t just one single engagement; it consisted of a multitude of simultaneous battles fought across a vast landscape encompassing parts of two Benelux countries and involving the armies of three nations – the U.S., the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Obviously, no book ever written about a single battle can tell every single story of every participant, and Snow & Steel clearly does not pretend to be the ultimate word on the Battle of the Bulge. But if I were to recommend one book about the greatest of all battles in Northwest Europe during World War II, Snow and Steel would be my top pick.