Section 3: 'Broad front' or 'knifelike thrust'?

Main purpose:

This section looks at whether it was really logistically possible to end the war in Europe earlier with a "knifelike thrust" deep into the heart of Germany, which could have crippled their war industry.

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Van Creveld begins by laying out three popular views on the question of whether WW2 could have been ended earlier with a "knifelike thrust" deep into Germany. All three views are in agreement that there was an opportunity, but they have different views on why the opportunity was missed. First, there's the view that the opportunity was missed due to American inaction. Second, there's the view that the opportunity was too risky to take advantage of. Third, there's the view that there was no way to take advantage of the opportunity anyway, due to supply and transportation shortfalls, meaning that it really wasn't an opportunity to begin with.

Van Creveld reviews the Allied logistical and strategic situation in Europe in 1944. Huge operational gains had been made, always against the advice of the logisticians. The logisticians were finally called on the carpet to explain themselves, and had to go back to the drawing board to re-evaluate their estimates. They created another set of overly-cautious estimates and conditions that had to be met for operations to be conducted. These were quickly proved just as wrong as the first set of estimates, mostly by Patton and Hodges, who outran the logistics plan by 200 miles and several months despite meeting few of the logisticians' conditions for successful operations.

At this point, ineffective logistics plans were constantly being abandoned and overcome at the tactical (and even the operational) level, but the strategic level just couldn't improvise fast enough to keep up. Every plan for a new supply depot was outrun by the tempo of operations, and COMZ eventually stopped trying to set one up. Instead, they tried to keep things simple and flexible for once, and limited themselves to pushing the most critical supplies (ammo, fuel, and food) on transportation they yanked from every unit that wasn't a major priority. Other transportation solutions included attempts to use air drops (though they delivered relatively average of 1,000 tons per day) and the innovative Red Ball Express (a loop of one-way highways reserved exclusively for endless resupply convoys of trucks).

Although these measures were a step in the right direction, it was too little too late, and the situation finally began to resemble the logisticians' gloomy predictions. The flow of supplies slowly dropped from 19,000 to less than 7,000 tons per day, causing the Allied armies to grind to a halt. At this point, the common sense, "company gunny"-type solutions became more sinister, as they frequently do in the absence of proper support. Soldiers impersonated members of other units, convoys were diverted or hijacked, transportation companies were robbed of the fuel they needed for return trips, and spotter planes were diverted to the rear just to search for friendly fuel convoys to intercept. The logistics push system became a problem as well, with transport being wasted pushing supplies that armies didn't need. Van Creveld also briefly notes that these problems were more severe with the Americans than the British, due in some cases to their different situation (the British had more and better roads, shorter supply lines, etc.), but also due to at least a few good logistics decisions made by the British (e.g., flexing by reducing the offload rate at the ports, which freed up more trucks to move supplies to the front).

Van Creveld moves on to the German situation. Operations from D-Day onward had destroyed huge and irreplaceable quantities of vehicles, weapons, and other materiel. Even in cases where the losses were less severe (like artillery, where the Germans were only outnumbered 3 to 1), shortfalls in critical supplies (like, say, artillery ammunition) created problems. In some cases this created complete strategic imbalances, like in the case of combat aircraft, where the Germans were totally outmatched. And this is without even getting into manpower shortfalls due to casualties, which had reduced entire divisions to regimental strength or less. The situation for both sides having been reviewed, van Creveld is ready to address his central attack on the Ruhr.

In light of the huge German shortfalls, there seemed to be an opportunity to thrust deep into the industrial heart of Germany on the Ruhr River. The route was wide open, and success could have crippled the Germans even further, maybe even forcing them to surrender. To understand this opportunity and any decision over whether or not to take advantage of it, van Creveld says we need to step back to the planning of the Allies' campaigns in Europe during the spring of 1944.

The plan was simple. The main effort would be the Ruhr River, not Berlin (Berlin was just too far away to be the objective of the first campaigns). While there was an easy and direct route to the Ruhr, it was paired with a second advance from another direction to keep the Germans guessing where the blow would actually come from (and hopefully force them spread out their already-thin resources). Was this a good idea? Was this a bad idea? Van Creveld doesn't know, but his point is this: the breakout from Normandy was very different from what the Allies had in mind when they planned this broad advance on the Ruhr.

After watching the lightning advances after Normandy, Field Marshall Montgomery started having second thoughts about this two-advance deception plan. His new idea was to freeze all supporting efforts in Europe, yank all possible resources from those supporting efforts (especially logistics resources), and dump them all on a main effort that would drive directly to the Ruhr (and possibly directly onward to Berlin in a second campaign), decisively ending the war. He attempted to sell this plan to Eisenhower, but Eisenhower wasn't convinced.

From Eisenhower's perspective, this wasn't such a great idea for three reasons. First, it meant halting Patton, Eisenhower's lead sled dog. Second, Eisenhower thought any advance on the Ruhr had to wait on the port of Antwerp to be opened up, or logistical problems would jack up the operation. And third, Montgomery briefed his plan very badly, mostly by talking about Berlin as its ultimate objective, which confused everybody. Montgomery was just being dramatic, but everyone thought he literally meant a huge overextension aimed at Berlin, which Eisenhower could safely reject as unreasonable.

For better or worse, Montgomery was distracted from pitching his plan when the Germans started rocketing London. The politicians back home told him screw the Ruhr, and that his new top priority was capturing those rocket launch sites as soon as humanly possible. This forced him to advance in an entirely different direction, and Eisenhower happily supported him. But this brings van Creveld back to the question of "what if?".

What if Eisenhower had agreed with Montgomery's plan, and the Allies dropped everything in favor of pushing to the Ruhr along a single axis of advance instead of two, even though the port of Antwerp wasn't open? Could it have been done? Van Creveld, true to his promise at the beginning of the Supplying War, decides to answer this question with hard numbers.

First, he determines the forces that would have been involved...about 18 divisions between the Americans and the British. Second, he determines how far they would have been going...about 130 miles. Third, he makes some reasonable assumptions about what resources would have been available...probably no railways once they made it into Germany due to sabotage, and probably no air support in Germany due to a lack of airfields. With all that established, he moves on to what the forces' requirements were, and how those requirements could be moved and distributed.

On average, a division required about 650 tons of supplies per day, though van Creveld admits this might be a slight overestimation. Using these estimates, the whole "knifelike thrust" operation would need 11,700 tons of supplies a day (18 divisions x 650 tons per day). Out of this total, the British would need about 5,850 tons per day for their 9 divisions. Van Creveld concludes that between 2,800 tons per day delivered to supply depots in Belgium by rail, 1,000 tons a day delivered to Brussels by planes diverted from frozen operations in Arnhem, and 500 tons per day delivered by surplus American trucks taken from frozen operations in Normandy, the British could come very close, with 4,300 tons per day. And if Montgomery used his own organic trucks to bring up supplies from near Caen and Bayeux, he could have covered the last 1,550 tons per day that he needed. Once the supplies made it to the depots, getting them to the frontline troops would require 58 truck companies. Since the British had 140 of these companies, they could have probably dedicated enough to make the knifelike thrust work, plus had enough left over to support the Canadians, who would be free to advance toward Antwerp, addressing Eisenhower's concerns about opening the port. So the nine British divisions could have done it, but it would have been a close thing (and it probably would have required getting some American trucks).

The nine American divisions would have had a harder time. During this period, Hodges' divisions were only getting 3,500 tons per day out of the 5,850 they needed, and even getting them that much was difficult. Van Creveld estimates that Hodges was short about 35 truck companies to bring up additional supplies to him from the rear depots. Once the "knifelike thrust" actually began, he'd need another 58 truck companies to supply him at the front lines. So, the knifelike thrust question really comes down to how many trucks could have been taken from Patton if he had been halted.

Unfortunately, we don't know exactly how much transport was really supporting Patton at this time, but van Creveld thinks we can make an educated guess. Patton was receiving about 3,500 tons of supplies per day, maybe even a bit more, and he was receiving it over about 180 miles, which implies that the equivalent of 52 truck companies was at work in one way or another. Between those and an additional 15 truck companies that could safely be yanked from frozen operations against Brest by VIII Corps, Hodges could have had as many as 65 truck companies in support of him, far short of the 93 van Creveld projected. However, van Creveld notes that while there aren't specific figures, pulling the forces' organic trucks for use as provisional truck companies probably could have shaved off 1,500 tons per day, cutting Hodges' truck company requirements down to 71...very close to the 65 or so that we've already estimated could have been freed up. It's close, but van Creveld is willing to give it to him. Montgomery's "knifelike thrust" idea was, at least on the face of it, within the realm of possibility.

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Capt Palmer's favorite quote:

"With petrol in their tanks and rations in their pockets, combat units, faced with very little organized opposition, could accelerate their progress almost at will. Not so COMZ, however, which found it impossible to make depots keep pace with the rapidly advancing front. No sooner had a site been selected than it was left behind, and after several attempts (each costly in terms of transport) COMZ gave up in despair and concentrated on bringing up the most essential items from bases that were sometimes 300 miles in the rear."