Review: Voices of the Bulge
- Published: 27 December 2011 27 December 2011
- Last Updated: 12 July 2013 12 July 2013
Writing books with a fresh perspective on battles done to death is a tall order. "Voices of the Bulge" is an oral history of the December 1944 Ardennes Offensive ("Battle of the Bulge"), where the authors have compiled interviews with veterans and interwoven them with an account on the battle. The book is the result of twelve years of research and interviews, and the authors have tracked down scores of veterans of the battle. Several of them have since passed away, further stressing the importance of documenting their stories. While I applaud all attempts to ensure that the experiences of the men and women who were there aren't forgotten, I'm not entirely impressed with the end product.
To be fair, the book is a readable and straightforward account of the Battle of the Bulge, with the emphasis on the critical first ten days. There are ample accounts by veterans, ranging from a paragraph to several of pages in length, with the text returning several times to the veterans as the narrative progresses. An interesting aspect of the book are the accounts by the American soldiers who were taken prisoner of war and transferred to Germany. Scant food, minimal comfort, and being bombed by their own side were some of the hardships they had to endure. I for one would've liked to read more about it. Another aspect that gets coverage is the work by Belgian volunteer nurses in Bastogne. Renée Lemaire, made known to a bigger audience through the HBO mini-series "Band of Brothers", is mentioned, and the authors managed to track down her colleague, Augusta Chiwy. The brave Congo-born nurse hasn't got the recognition she is due (she was briefly portrayed in the series by a much darker actor), but the authors attempt to set things right.
Many accounts are along the lines of "It was cold and snowy, then the Germans came and we had to retreat, but then the tables were turned". But there are also plenty of interesting tid-bits and insights, and even some amusing episodes. While I've read memoirs by veterans that have given a more in-depth account of their experiences, the stories chosen for the book feel mostly relevant, offering a broad picture of the hardships endured by the common G.I. While the back of the book claims that both sides are represented, it can hardly be said that it's in equal measures. The German veterans – all three of them – get exactly 2½ pages, plus a page with a second-hand quote attributed to Manteuffel. One of the veterans, Knight's Cross recipient Erwin Kressmann, is presented as a Jagdpanzer driver, when he in fact was a platoon commander. An 116. Panzer Division veteran, who is described as having talked almost non-stop for twelve hours, gets a single page. Anyone expecting a book offering perspectives from both sides should look elsewhere.
It can be hard to discern when a quote by a veteran ends and the main text begins, making the narrative unnecessarily confusing at times. There are a few single-page presentations of the main adversaries, like Patton and Peiper, but they are rather pointless, as they just repeat information already found in the main text almost verbatim. A few place names are confusing, and should have been caught by an editor. That veterans might have misheard names is no excuse, as clarifications should have been included. I spotted "Monceau" (Monschau) and "Roven" (Rouen); there might be a few others.Throughout the book, the use of imperial and metric measurements is intermingled, much to the confusion of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. On page 31, there's a "50mm machine gun"; surely that should be an M2 .50 cal MG (caliber 12.7 mm). Other amazing U.S. weapons are evident on page 119, where the reader is intrigued by the "firing between our tanks at a range of six hundred miles".
There are some other unnecessary inaccuracies, slips and typos which cast doubts over the rest of the text. On page 19, it is claimed by the authors that the Germans attacked with the latest in technology, including Panthers with infra-red night vision systems. While a company in the 116. Panzer-Division was probably equipped with the IR sights, the impact was likely marginal at best. "Rollbahn D" is subjected to a misspelling; on page 45 it is called "Rollerbhan D". The 18. Volksgrenadier-Division is referred to as a regiment (p. 69). A sulfa tablet becomes a "sulfur tablet" (p. 80). On pages 105-106, the writing is a bit ambigious, not making it clear whether the four tanks destroyed were American or German (they were American). The SS Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 4 "Der Führer" is called the "4th Panzer Regiment 'DF'" (p. 129). The commander of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion, Lt Col Walter Paton (one "t") is referred to as "Colonel Patton" (p. 175-6, and listed under General Patton in the index). On page 245, the first tank breaking the siege of Bastogne, an M4A3E2 Sherman named "Cobra King", is referred to as a "Cobra King tank". Throughout the book, Tiger II tanks are referred to as "King Tiger", "King Tiger II", "Tiger II" and "Tiger II Royal".
It comes as no surprise that veterans can have fuzzy recollections 60+ years after the events, but it is my belief that authors should at least present corrections to incorrect claims. The most glaring example is by a veteran who claims that "soldiers of the 3rd Parachute Division were dropped well behind our lines (...) dressed in U.S. Uniforms (...) Most spoke excellent English". They were "cutting phone lines, turning road signs (...) acting as MPs (...) confiscated many U.S. Vehicles" (page 193). That the authors leave this blatant myth uncommented is remarkable; it has more in common with the fantasy unit in the 1965 movie "Battle of the Bulge" than historic reality. Unless the reader is aware of the real Operation Stösser (where paratroopers from the 6. Fallschirmjäger-Division jumped in German uniform) and Operation Greif (where Skorzeny's commandos in US uniforms infiltrated US lines), there's a risk that the myth is perpetuated.
On page 277, the authors claim that Hitler ran the battle from Berlin, which is incorrect. He stayed at his Adlerhorst headquarters, about 200 km from the frontlines in the Ardennes. Another strange error can be found on page 297, where a veteran claims to have been in combat against the "Hermann Goering Paratrooper Division" and parts of the "Adolf Hitler Panzer Division" in the battle for Thirimont (near Malmedy), January 14, 1945. The funny thing is that the German units in that battle were some companies from the 3. Fallschirmjäger-Division.
Now over to a pet peeve of mine: photo captions. They are a measure of the care that went into a book, and whoever wrote the captions for "Voices of the Bulge" failed in one tenth of the captions. Many of the mistakes could've been caught through simple proof-reading; I had certainly no problem spotting the errors and omissions. A glaring error is found on page 33, where a .30 cal M1919 MG is identified as a .50 cal M2 MG – a weapon which is almost twice as long, and with a different silhouette. To add insult to injury, the error is repeated on page 173. The photo of a five-barreled Nebelwerfer 42 on page 64 has a caption describing the six-barreled Nebelwerfer 41. A photo of U.S. troops in a wintry forest (p. 98) is accompanied by a caption about the fighting in Aachen. A Jagdpanther is misidentified as a Jagdtiger on page 110. The caption for the photo on page 131 mentions PzKpfw IVs, but the photo shows a Panther. On page 139, there's a photo of a U.S. tank destroyer, but no mention that it's an M36. A photo on page 275 depicts a couple of M4 Sherman tanks, but the caption is about Walther Model, giving the impression that some photos were chosen at random.
There's no bibliography or listing of secondary sources, which is remarkable for a book like this, but it appears like Michael Reynolds' "The Devil's Adjutant" has been consulted, judging by the numerous references to Kampfgruppe Peiper. In chapter 13, I discovered that several paragraphs were copied straight from "United States Army in World War II – The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge" (1965) by Hugh M. Cole without attributing it to the source. Increasingly suspicious, I googled some random sentences in other chapters, and found that the authors have cut-and-pasted texts found online in several cases, with no mention of the sources. This is lazy writing, and while plagiarism isn't criminal, it can be considered dishonest when the sources are omitted.
The accompanying DVD is a compilation of interviews with U.S. Veterans. Each is a few minutes in length, and their experiences is put in context by the narrator. Considering that veterans are leaving us at an increasing rate, this is a valuable document. Age is taking its toll, and in 25 years the last of them will have passed away. The DVD is a nice bonus, adding to the value of the book for anyone with an interest in what the survivors have to tell.
The reader of this review might get the impression that I went over the book with a magnifying glass with the intent to find the tiniest flaws, but my remarks are those of a reader with some familiarity with the battle, and who reacted when errors and oddities kept cropping up. As stated earlier, another round by a competent proofreader would've weeded out the errors I found, and nailed those I undoubtedly have missed. I hope that a second edition of this book will feature corrected information, as "Voices of the Bulge" deserves to be read. The issue of plagiarism is troubling, and I was of a mind to strike a star from the rating. If it hadn't been for the flaws I've remarked on, I would've given it four stars out of five. As it stands, it gets three.
Published by Zenith Press, 2011. 320 pages, 93 b/w photos, 5 maps + accompanying 47 minute DVD
(Reviewed by B Hellqvist)
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.