Edinburgh Book Festival: Antony Beevor, Hitler's Last Gamble

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Antony Beevor (author), Andrew Franklin (chair)
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Andrew Franklin in the Chair introduced author Antony Beevor as someone who had become one of the leading authorities on the Second World War. Formerly an officer with the 11th Hussars, Beevor seemed to have won innumerable prizes for his work and was given an appropriate welcome by the audience in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre for this introduction to his new work "Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble".

Beginning after the Allied invasion of France in early June 1944, Beevor painted a vivid picture of the scene in Europe. To many authorities it seemed as though the Germans were moving back to the Siegfried Line and it appeared that the situation was one similar to 1918 when Germany was on the verge of surrender. Field Marshal Montgomery was pressing General Eisenhower to be given the chance to be the leading Allied commander to cross the Rhine and get into Germany. Montgomery had to wrestle for the leadership with General Omar Bradley - by whom Montgomery thought he was liked, when in fact Bradley actually hated Montgomery!

Meanwhile, on the German side, Field Marshal Model was quietly reinforcing in the west. This was at a time when the area of the Ardennes south west of Aachen was being covered by some of the most inexperienced American troops. But the land itself was difficult and almost impossible for tanks while the steep slopes and forest made infantry movement extremely difficult.

Beevor's account was full of fascinating insights. With the damp environment, equipment quickly became unserviceable, weapons rusted unless cleaned regularly, and the soldiers themselves were ill-prepared for the bad winter. While the Germans had sensible reversible uniforms with white on one side the Americans had to get sheets to camouflage themselves.

Morale on the American side was low with soldiers hoping to get trench foot as a way of escaping from the unpleasant conditions. Operating in the area was described as trying to fight in 'Passchendael but with trees'. Navigating in the area was so difficult that sometimes patrols would wait until daybreak in order to see where they were. Stories circulated that after five days you began talking to the trees and after six you got answers back.
So the Americans were in no shape to resist the German onslaught and in the early stages it looked as though Hitler's bold plan to break out through the Ardennes, capture Brussels and then the port of Antwerp might just succeed.

The battles were fierce and men were soaked in sweat which then froze on them; apart from the unsuitable uniforms both sides suffered from a lack of food. The Germans tended to be slimmer and had less fat on them than the Americans - although this meant they were more operable if wounded, the Americans had a reserve of fat if food was scarce.

Take no prisoners

Antony Beevor mentioned the shooting of prisoners of war - in this state of a rapid and pressurised advance the recognised system of taking prisoners back through the lines was at times abandoned by both sides. The best known incident was the murder at Malmedy of some 84 American soldiers who were shot in a field. The news of this atrocity spread through Allied ranks like wild fire and there were reprisals on the Allied side. This was recognised by General Paton who admitted that there had been some concealment of these acts.

The Germans had been able to advance and exploit the American weakness due to poor weather which grounded the Allied aircraft, however, as Christmas approached the weather improved and the Allied air forces could support the ground troops. This was bad news for the Germans who had initially had considerable success. Eventually the situation was stabilised mainly due to the incredible American logistic effort.

This was a splendid introduction by Antony Beevor to the campaign which saw some of the fiercest fighting of the war. It left the audience with many questions and looking for more. Doubtless many will buy his book.

"Ardennes 1944: Hitler's Last Gamble" by Antony Beevor (Penguin Books)