review-first-rhine
First to the Rhine: The 6th Army Group in World War II
Harry Yeide & Mark Stout
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Serious students of World War II are familiar with the operations of the 12th and 21st Army Groups in the European Theater of Operation. The names of their commanders, General Omar N. Bradley and Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery are equally well known . In comparison very little has been published about 6th Army Group, its commander General Jacob L. Devers, his senior subordinates, and the two armies under his command. First To The Rhine is an attempt to rectify this shortcoming by bringing the story of 6th Army Group out of the shadows of history and into the light of recognition and appreciation.

The authors open their book with an overview of the events leading up to the decision to launch Operation Anvil/Dragoon, the invasion of southern France, and describe the operations of 6th Army Group and its two armies, Seventh US Army and First French Army from the invasion of southern France to their final battles of the war in southern Bavaria. Alternating between 6th Army Group, Seventh US Army and the First French Army, the narrative provides descriptions of the personalities and decisions of the senior officers, Lieutenant Alexander M. Patch (Seventh Army), General Jean-Marie de Lattre (First French Army), and their subordinates as they lead their troops from the beaches of southern France north into the provinces of Lorraine and Alsace where they became the first allied force to arrive on the banks of the German Rhine, and finally across the Rhine River into the heartland of southern Germany. The authors develop the 6th Army Group history by covering salient topics ranging from the overall theater strategies set by the Supreme Commander, General Dwight David Eisenhower, to the missions assigned to 6th Army Group. The narrative is further enhanced by the relation of plentiful first-person turret and foxhole level experiences of men at the fighting front as they fight important, but little known battles like Montelimar, forcing the rugged Vosges Mountains, capturing the important French city of Strasbourg, defeating Operation Nordwind, the last major German offensive in the west, breaching the strongly fortified Siegfried Line, the bloody fight for Nuremberg, and the capture of Stuttgart and Munich. Unfortunately, the book is marred by errors both great and small.

In their introduction, Yeide and Stout explain the paucity of photographs in the book as follows: Seventh Army was badly served by its Signal Corps photographers. This reviewer respectfully disagrees. There is no indication that Seventh Army’s Signal Corps photographers were any less diligent in fulfilling their duties than those of other American armies. Photographs of specific Seventh Army units are not always easy to locate, but diligent and patient research brings them to light more often that not. A fact that is repeatedly proven accurate by the serial donations of scanned Seventh Army photographs to various institutions and veterans associations including the 14th Armored Division Association, by a gifted and generous NARA researcher. This information gives rise to the following question. Could the authors’ inability to locate the desired photographs be the reason the moving pictures division at the National Archive refused to convert key Signal Corps film to video, so we could not fill in the pictorial record with frame captures? (1)

An initial spot check of two citations of the Seventh Army G-2 Report for 16 and 20 August 1944 located at the end of the first chapter revealed each to be erroneous. These citations support a portion of text describing the disposition and order of battle for the German 242d Infantry Division, 765th Grenadier Regiment on 15 August 1944, the day before the allied landings in S. France. In fact, the source does not mention this, or any other German division on the cited dates, nor is there any mention of the single platoon of Mk IV tanks the authors say were attached to the division. Moreover, the source actually states that as of the end of D+2, (17 August), the 765th Regiment consisted only of scattered remnants northeast of Toulon, a fact that is inconsistent with the authors’ citation of the entry dated 20 August. (2)

The unexpected discovery of these basic mistakes so early in the book gives the reader good cause to question any additional statements by the authors that seem a bit off. Rather than engage in the time-consuming and ultimately unrewarding task of rigorous fact checking this reviewer decided to identify and discuss only those errors that seemingly leapt from the page.

The authors relate that on 26 September 1944, General Eisenhower gave General Devers two missions for 6th Army Group; … protect the southern flank of 12th Army Group, and to destroy enemy forces west of the Rhine, secure river crossings, and breach the Siegfried Line. Aside from the fact that four missions were actually given, the claim that 6th Army Group was to secure river crossings is not only incorrect, it is very misleading. General Eisenhower actually ordered his army group commanders, including General Devers, to secure crossings over the Rhine…(bold added for emphasis). This is a vastly different mission than the one put forth by the authors, and has profound implications in light of General Eisenhower’s subsequent refusal to allow 6th Army Group to cross that strategic obstacle when the opportunity presented itself in late November. In their discussion of this event, the authors claim General Devers’ preparations to cross the Rhine was a not covered by Eisenhower’s mission orders, and go on to conclude that the Supreme Commander was merely sticking to his original strategic plan. Under the circumstances, it is difficult to understand how the authors could have missed this crucial piece of information. (3)

Factual errors found in the narrative include some that are important to the reader’s understanding of the supply situation of 6th Army Group. For example, in relating the shortages that faced Seventh Army at the end of December 1944 the authors make the following, un-sourced statement: But there was no easy fix for the shortage of tank crews. The losses suffered by the 14th Armored Division alone consumed all available replacements. However, the available literature does not mention a severe shortage of tank crews at this juncture in time. Shortages of tanks and other combat vehicles within Seventh Army had been a problem for some time. These shortages required the 14th Armored Division to complete its authorized equipment levels before entering combat by refurbishing and rebuilding worn out light tanks found in Ordnance depots around Marseilles. By early December, the problem had not improved, and the Seventh Army G-4 reported that replacing the tank losses (bold added for emphasis) of the ….14th Armored Division alone would absorb all reserves if replaced completely,”… concluding, Replacements of armored combat vehicles was one of the principal problems of supply. (4)

The authors’ description of VI Corps preparations for the impending German offensive, Operation Nordwind presents a rather odd error. In this description they indicate that that on the afternoon of 31 December, Major General Edward Brooks, the VI Corps commander, issued orders for his troops to send out stronger and more numerous patrols than usual in anticipation of the expected attack along its front, citing the VI Corps G-3 Journal as their source. However, the full text of Field Order 10, communicating General Brooks’ specific orders to his various units on the afternoon of 31 December required front-line units to initiate reconnaissance, but say nothing about sending out stronger and more numerous patrols than usual. In fact, the preparations ordered by General Brooks in Field Order 10 are far more detailed than those portrayed in First To The Rhine. As a result, the reader must question the authors’ wisdom in consulting only the VI Corps G-3 Journal rather than supplementing it with the more comprehensive VI Corps Historical Record. (5)

Smaller errors also detract from the book’s reliability. Here are some examples. The authors describe a self-propelled 155mm howitzer that engaged in a direct fire mission to overcome a German position, but no such weapon was in the US Army arsenal during WWII. Despite the authors’ claim, no American tanks were lost during the action at Philippsbourg on 4 January 1945. The two tanks mentioned were from 1st Platoon, Company A, 47th Tank Battalion, and were knocked out during an attempt to recapture the town the previous day, 3 January. In addition, the 1st Platoon was replaced by the 2d Platoon on the morning of 4 January. Thus, contrary to the authors’ statement, the 1st Platoon was no longer at Philippsbourg. And the elements of the 14th Armored Division which the authors say rolled through the hole [in the Siegfried Line] created by the 103d Division on 22 March 1945 was actually Combat Command B, 14th Armored Division. The combat command’s advance to exploit the breakthrough did not begin until 0507 hours on 23 March. (6)

The chapter covering Operation Nordwind contains an odd hit or miss approach to acknowledging the actions of men and units who received the Medal of Honor and Presidential (Distinguished) Unit Citations during this period. The authors elected not to mention the five Presidential Unit Citations awarded for the successful defense of Hatten and Rittershoffen, but include a description of the actions of a soldier of the 242d Infantry who received the Medal of Honor. Further evidence of this hit and miss approach is found in the omission of the actions of a Medal of Honor recipient in defending the village of Philippsbourg on 3-4 January. Instead, the authors chose to include a description of a Lt. Col. of the 275th Infantry purportedly leading a counter-attack in Philippsbourg on 4 January by walking down the street in advance of a supporting tank. This missing information would have added considerably to the reader’s understanding and appreciation of these battles. (7)

For reasons unknown, the authors chose not to include in their bibliography the full citations of primary and original sources frequently cited in the chapter notes, leaving the reader without sufficient information to positively identify them. The repeated citation of a source identified only as “Sixth Army Group history [sic]” is a problematic example of these partial citations because there is more than one “history” of Sixth Army Group. (8)

First To The Rhine adds little or no new information to our understanding of the histories of Seventh US Army and 6th Army Group. However, the authors’ inclusion of translated excerpts from combat units of the First French Army are of interest, although they offer little that would increase our knowledge of strategy and tactics of our French allies. While members of the general public will find much to like in First To The Rhine, they will undoubtedly receive a somewhat skewed view of 6th Army Group operations from its avoidable errors. It is these errors, great and small, that similarly limit its value to serious students of 6th Army Group. The book should have, and could have been much better. Regrettably, 6th Army Group still awaits a thoroughly researched and reliably accurate history of its operations in France and Germany.


Footnotes

1. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, p. 9.
2. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, pp. 36 and 391.; G-2 History, Seventh Army, Report of Operations in Europe. Part One, 15-31 August 1944, 16th, 17th and 20th August 1944.
3. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, pp. 192, 255-256.; A History Of The Headquarters Sixth Army Group, Vol. I, paragraphs. 58, 111 and 155. Clarke and Smith, Riviera To The Rhine, p. 226.
4. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, p. 269.; Carter, History of the 14th Armored Division, (not paginated).; The Seventh United States Army Report of Operations: France and Germany, 1944-1945. Vol. II, p. 553.
5. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, p. 274, 404.; Historical Record, Headquarters VI Corps, December 1944, Annex 8.
6. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine; pp. 170, 281-283, 347.; The US Army fielded no self-propelled 155m howitzers during WWII. The self-propelled weapon in question was either an M12 155mm gun, or an M7 105mm howitzer.; Pence and Petersen, Ordeal In The Vosges; pp. 139, 238-247.; 47th Tank Battalion: History from New York o/Hudson to Muhldorf o/Inn, pp. 19-20.; Tape Recorded Interview, 8 March 2006, with Harold Kiehne, Platoon Sgt., 1st Platoon, Company A, 47th Tank. Mr. Kiehne was awarded the Silver Star for his actions in defending Philippsbourg on the night of 3-4 January.; Dickson, Combat History of 19th Armored Infantry Battalion, October 12th, 1944 to May 9th 1945, p. 60.; History, 47th Tank Battalion, p. 30.; Capt. Franklin Wallace, Jr., editor, History, 125th Armored Engineer Battalion: Camp Shanks, NY To V-E Day, Inclusive, p. 56.
7. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, pp. 283, 289-290.; Carter, History of the 14th Armored Division; The Cross Of Lorraine: A Combat History Of The 79th Infantry Division, June 1942-December 1945, p. 103.
8. Yeide and Stout, First To The Rhine, p. 389.; The reviewer assumes the authors were referring to the unpublished, A History Of The Headquarters Sixth Army Group (3 Vols.), although the National Archives at College Park ( Modern Military Records), has the official historical records of 6th Army Group in its collections.

(Reviewed by Jim Lankford, National Historian 14th Armored Division Association “LIBERATORS”)

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