David P. Colley: How World War II Wasn’t Won





[David P. Colley is the author of “Decision at Strasbourg: Ike’s Strategic Mistake to Halt the Sixth Army Group at the Rhine in 1944.”]

SIXTY-FIVE years ago, in November 1944, the war in Europe was at a stalemate. A resurgent Wehrmacht had halted the Allied armies along Germany’s borders after its headlong retreat across northern France following D-Day. From Holland to France, the front was static — yet thousands of Allied soldiers continued to die in futile battles to reach the Rhine River.

One Allied army, however, was still on the move. The Sixth Army Group reached the Rhine at Strasbourg, France, on Nov. 24, and its commander, Lt. Gen. Jacob L. Devers, looked across its muddy waters into Germany. His force, made up of the United States Seventh and French First Armies, 350,000 men, had landed Aug. 15 near Marseille — an invasion largely overlooked by history but regarded at the time as “the second D-Day” — and advanced through southern France to Strasbourg. No other Allied army had yet reached the Rhine, not even hard-charging George Patton’s.

Devers dispatched scouts over the river. “There’s nobody in those pillboxes over there,” a soldier reported. Defenses on the German side of the upper Rhine were unmanned and the enemy was unprepared for a cross-river attack, which could unhinge the Germans’ southern front and possibly lead to the collapse of the entire line from Holland to Switzerland.

The Sixth Army Group had assembled bridging equipment, amphibious trucks and assault boats. Seven crossing sites along the upper Rhine were evaluated and intelligence gathered. The Seventh Army could cross north of Strasbourg at Rastatt, Germany, advance north along the Rhine Valley to Karlsruhe, and swing west to come in behind the German First Army, which was blocking Patton’s Third Army in Lorraine. The enemy would face annihilation, and the Third and Seventh Armies could break loose and drive into Germany. The war might end quickly.

Devers never crossed. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander, visited Devers’s headquarters that day and ordered him instead to stay on the Rhine’s west bank and attack enemy positions in northern Alsace. Devers was stunned. “We had a clean breakthrough,” he wrote in his diary. “By driving hard, I feel that we could have accomplished our mission.” Instead the war of attrition continued, giving the Germans a chance to counterattack three weeks later in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, which cost 80,000 American dead and wounded.

Garrison Davidson, then Devers’s engineering officer and later a superintendent of West Point, believed Devers’s attack would have succeeded and pre-empted the Bulge, writing, “I have often wondered what might have happened had Ike had the audacity to take a calculated risk, as General Patton would have.” Patton wrote in his diary that he also believed Eisenhower had missed a great opportunity; the Seventh Army’s commander, Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch, felt the same way...


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