The Battle of the Bulge began in the Ardennes in December 1944 as operation Wacht am Rhein, Hitler’s counterstrike in the west that was supposed to be the first step to turn the tide of war. Including operation Nordwind to the south, ”the Bulge” was the last time the Third Reich advanced. For the last time, headlines told about German victories, just as in 1940. In the end, it created a slew of dramatic tales, broke the back of the Wehrmacht, and delayed the advance of the allies with some six weeks.
If that brief description told you something new, this book is probably not for you — it is clearly not for beginners. Not only is it dense and detailed, but it assumes familiarity with the topics. The text is littered with terms such as MSR, LD and G-2, they are explained in a list of abbreviations but if you need to check this more than twice for every page of text, you probably should settle for a more popular work. Knowledge of the World War II in general, the main participants and events is also assumed, on a level basic for historians but less so for the average reader of popular history. For example, Patton’s ”slapping episodes” are mentioned several times but not described, even the note doesn’t give you a clue on what it was really about.
The book describes the events as they unfolded day by day, hour by hour. The emphasis is on the higher levels: army groups, armies and corps, some chosen divisions and even a few smaller units. Such works tend to be on the dry side, and this is no exception. Still, Rickard manages to capture some of the dirt, blood and smoke of actual combat, somewhat more so than the average book in this class.
The storyline has a steady focus on Patton. It does of course deal with a number of other commanders, with a decreasing level of detail as you get further from the general: his corps commanders as well as Bradley are described almost as carefully, division commanders and Eisenhower less so etc. The German troops and commanders are covered quite well though, with the command structures of the OKW down to division level, the morale, motives, equipment and intelligence of the various units, and so on. This is a tricky aspect of writing military history: If you’ve decided to describe one side, how much space should you let the other have? Rickard manages the balance admirably.
The weeks of the Bulge created numerous tales, legends and rumours in USA in particular, being the most dramatic part of their European war next to the D-Day. This leaves dedicated scholars such as Rickard with plenty of material to sort out, clarify and debunk, much more so than other campaigns which, tactical and strategic importance aside, have left a far smaller footprint in the general consciousness, such as the battles in North Africa or Italy. Being a work for military historians, many of the myths and misconceptions dealt with are probably or certainly unknown among the general reader. Rickard himself points out ULTRA intelligence as an important if not vital aspect of the Bulge that has been overlooked by other historians. I cannot comment on this, but if he’s right, it would be surprising, and alone worth the purchase of this book.
Maps are the traditional weak point in military history. Here they are just as important as ever, with the movements of numerous troops traced day by day, between a myriad cities, towns, villages and forests. The maps are on par with the majority of books, which unfortunately is not a praise. The text keeps mentioning places and units which are not to be found on any map in the book, or only after careful examination. As almost always, this book isn’t complete without a good collection of relevant maps and preferrably Google Earth or similar for reference. (If you didn’t know the geography of the Ardennes before, you will when you’ve finished this book.)
The appendices makes up a fourth of the book: notes, selected ULTRA messages, daily weather reports, notes, selected bibliography and indices. The notes alone are some 70 pages, including sources, brief comments and quite a few longer comments. They are stuffed in the end of the book, a disposition I have no problem with for citations but never understood regarding comments.
One might very well begin with the last chapter ”Assessment”. It’s pretty much a condensed version of the book, where the author outlines his ideas of Patton’s qualities, leadership and relations with the other major players, the Battle at large etc.
All in all, the book is a ”must have” for the serious military historian, more so than a ”must read”. Only the most ardent of readers would enjoy reading it cover to cover. However, seen as a reference work with annotations and analyses, describing the estimate process of in particular, but not only, general Patton, it is complete and thorough, and should last a long time.
(Reviewed by Peter)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.
Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge
John Nelson Rickard
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