I thought it was high time I included some non-fiction reviews. I am a keen (amateur) military historian, so I am happy to start this little adventure into the unknown by reviewing a superb history, written by Peter Caddick-Adams, of one of the bloodiest battles of WW2. I was going to use the word ‘decisive’, but that would be inappropriate as it suggests that the outcome of the Battle of The Bulge, which began in December 1944. was a pivotal point in the war. It wasn’t. Hitler’s war was already lost, mainly thanks his disastrous attempt to invade Russia.
By the autumn of 1944, German forces had been pushed out of France and were being systematically overwhelmed by the Red Army in the east. The allies had control of the Channel coast, but the Germans had effectively wrecked the French ports. Antwerp, however, had been taken more or less intact, and when the Germans had been removed from their strong-points controlling the estuary of the River Scheldt, the Belgian port became a massive conduit for the arrival of men, machines and supplies for the Allies.
Hitler believed that if he could reach Antwerp and choke the Allies’ massive superiority in materiel, he could somehow wrench victory from the jaws of defeat. Caddick-Adams tells a tale as tense and addictive as any murder mystery. Let’s look at the three main ingredients of such tales:
Motive; in the east, the Russians were just too many, too implacable, and too powerful, so Hitler needed a win – somewhere, anywhere.
Opportunity; the largely American forces in the Ardennes area were a mixture of battle-hardened veterans who has stormed the Normandy beaches on 6th June, and more callow units. Some had been battered and bloodied by the savage fighting in the Hurtgen Forest earlier that year. For a first hand account of that battle seen through the eyes of JD Salinger, click this link. None of these American units were expecting anything other than a steady but remorseless slog eastwards until they crossed the Rhine, until they were able to beard the Fuhrer in his den.
Means? Aye, there’s the rub. Caddick-Adams explains that the cream of the German army had already been wiped out on the undulating fields of Normandy and bleaker killing grounds of East Prussia. The Werhmacht – comprising its three branches of land, sea and air forces – was on its uppers. To boost the forces attempting to storm their way across Belgium and recapture Antwerp, navy men from the Kriegsmarine and ground-crew from the Luftwaffe were given a helmet and a gun, and pitched against American forces.
It is one of the great paradoxes of WW2 that on the ground, at least, the Germans had the best guns, the best artillery and the best tanks. The problem was that although the formidable Panzers were easily able to overcome the relatively underpowered Sherman tanks used by the allies, the German vehicles were high maintenance and, some would say, over-engineered. The ubiquitous Shermans were rolling off the production lines in their thousands, while the formidable Tigers and Panthers – when they developed a fault – were fiendishly difficult to repair or cannibalise. Caddick-Adams (right) also reminds us how well-fed and supplied the American GIs were compared with their German foes. In one particularly eloquent passage, he tells us of the utter joy felt by a unit of Volksgrenadiers when they seized a supply of American rations. When their own kitchen unit eventually reached their position, the cooks and their containers of watery stew were given very short shrift.
Snow and Steel covers ground familiar to many amateur historians – the Malmedy Massacre, the heroic defence of Bastogne, and Hitler’s manic distrust of his generals, amplified by the Stauffenberg plot. The eventual outcome of this battle is a matter of history so, although his narrative is as good as any found in contemporary thrillers of mysteries, Caddick-Adams knows we expect no surprises. What he gives us, however, is what used to be called (in the age of vinyl) a double A-side. We have a brilliant, methodical and comprehensive account of a battle where we get to see both the strategic and tactical implications of a military campaign. Flip the metaphorical record over, and we have a vivid account of a battle as seen by men who were there, told in their own words, and thus made even more chilling through its immediacy. Snow and Steel is published by Arrow and is available here.