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"Lost Victory"

eisenhower alexander devers general vittel vosges november 1944The ETO had its own Mason-Dixon line in the autumn of 1944.  The border ran along the intersection of the U.S. Third and U.S. Seventh Armies. 

General George Patton believed that he would be the first man on the banks of the Rhine, wrote to his wife that  Major General Jacob Devers and his U.S. Seventh Army, under the command of General Alexander Patch, had  "made a monkey out of me."  The Seventh reached the Rhine before Thanksgiving Day 1944, with an intact bridge and the capture of the historic Strasbourg to complete history's first wintertime crossing of the Vosges Mountains.  Ironically, Hitler saved Patton's reputation by way of the Ardennes offensive, only one month removed.

General Eisenhower professed support to take advantage of any opportunity of the moment.  After months of grasping to take a bridgehead on the Rhine, through a brilliant coup-de-main,  General Devers handed the Allied Commander in Chief a historic opportunity:   An open door into Germany by way of Strasbourg and the intact Kehl Bridge.

In early November, Eisenhower ordered Generals  Montgomery, Bradley and Jacob Devers forward in a broad-front offensive to cross the Rhine River into Germany.  The goal:  End the war by Christmas 1944.   Bradley's First Army General Hodges and Third Army General Patton employed meat-grinder tactics like those used in World War One.  While the American First and Third Armies sapped precious strength in the morass of the Hurtgen Forest and against the fortresses around Metz, the Seventh Army's 44th I.D. and other American and French units in the Sixth Army Group units assailed the unassailable.  Their order: Mission Impossible.  Break through the enemy's winter line in the Vosges Mountains and cross the Rhine.  Accomplish this and all the while constrained by command of the fewest resources and holding firmly last place in re-supply priority.  With Ike's support, Monty hoarded supplies and troops and stood pat.   The Sixth Army, which included Lieutenant General Alexander Patch's U.S. Seventh Army, attacked.  Then, to everyone's amazement, Dever's soldiers breached the Vosges and reached the Rhine.  The frosting on the cake:  A liberated Strasbourg with its intact Kehl bridge over the Rhine into an undefended Germany.

map general jacob devers rhine proposalThe day after the Strasbourg's coup-de-main, Devers along with his lieutenants Generals Patch and French General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny received Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley, at his headquarters at Vittel in the Vosges Mountains.  Instead of giving his congratulations, the Supreme Commander intended to transfer several of the U.S. Seventh Army divisions.  Patton urgently needed fresh troops in the Third Army's stalled bloody offensive just to the north.   Devers countered.  His proposal:  Strike boldly beyond the Rhine and bypass the German forces on the west bank.  This meant the abandonment of General Patton's failed Third Army offensive around Metz and the transfer of Patton's Third Army to Alsace under Devers' command.   From this point, Devers plan including moving the U.S. Seventh Army across the Rhine for a northward push on the far side of the river inside Germany.  At the same time, Patton's Third Army would drive in parallel northward on the near side, the western bank of the Rhine.  The objective: Roll up the enemy's entire rear and cause Germany to abandon the Rhine's west bank all the way up to Holland.   This bold plan held a real chance to end the ETO conflict in late 1944 or early 1945.

gi infantry forward vosges mountains france 1944This daring new decisive war winning plan upset General Dever's distinguished peers and his boss.  Major General Omar Bradley fought against the plan with it's transfer of the Third Army and his rival Devers.   Eisenhower had nothing of this proposal.   Ike did not even approve the 7th Army forces to exploit the success and cross the Rhine into Germany - with or without Patton.  To General Devers and his staff, the Supreme Commander's decision canceling the Rhine crossing amounted to a dishonesty and betrayal and smacked of favoritism.  In so doing, Eisenhower directly contradicted the formal orders under which the Sixth Army Group had brilliantly succeeded.  Eisenhower made no apologies nor explanations regarding 'the why'  behind his change to the Sixth Army Group mission.   Ike simply commanded Devers to abandon any plan to cross the Rhine.  His new edict: Support Patton's right flank in his failed offensive against the Saar.  

The only point General Devers won was to keep the divisions coveted by Patton.   Obviously the Ike favored Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  Montgomery and his 21st Army Group continued to hold priority in the race to Berlin.  Even though Montgomery's units, in the main, stood pat, disobedient of his commander's explicit order to go on the offensive - Eisenhower did not budge for his new stated position.  The Seventh Army soldiers fought and won.  An invitation to end the war rejected.   Bradley enjoyed a
strong secondary priority from his long-time friend, mentor and now his commander, General Eisenhower.  General Bradley and his subordinate Patton benefited by receiving the bulk of U.S. troop replacements and supplies.  Dever's divisions ran short.   In the face of such favoritism, only Devers army stood victorious in the fall of 1944.  For the ETO, the sole source of triumphant news-reel and newspaper headlines for a war-weary home front emanated from the unfortunate one, the Sixth Army Group.  All others failed to produce battlefield wins.  Or in the case of the Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the First Viscount of el Alamein led 21st Army Group, did not even put forth a good effort after the failure of 'Market Garden.'

Major General Robert L. Spragins 44th Infantry Division vosgesFate is often cruel.  General Alexander Patch, in early November 1944, lost his son Captain Alexander Patch Jr. near Luneville, France, while serving in the 79th Infantry Division.  Matters were different for the Eisenhower family.  A change of assignment greeted  Lt. John Eisenhower upon his arrival in France in 1944.  For this recent West Point graduate and 'favorite son' the obligatory and demanding command of an infantry platoon was changed to a cushy and safe staff assignment. 

Ironically, musician and song-writer John Fogerty response when asked what inspired his late 1960s hit song 'Fortunate Son' [lyrics] was: "Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war" (the Vietnam conflict).   David  Eisenhower is the son of the same John Eisenhower.

The legacy of the Eisenhower pre-occupation or bias to the ETO north continues many years removed from November 1944.  The story with legs remains the six months later coup de main of the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen in March 1945.   The potential war ending and first to the Rhine River bridgehead at Strasbourg, with it's superior Kehl Bridge, continues as the historical footnote.  Instead of attacking the German's at their weakest point, Eisenhower decided to fight head-on against the main German line of defense, spearheaded by Patton's Third Army.   Ike wasted the brilliant historic drive through the Vosges.  And with it, the Allies lost the genuine prospect to end the war earlier.   

With apology to Erich von Manstein, failure to capitalize at Strasbourg may well be one of America's costliest 'Lost Victories.'

Sources: 
"The Final Crisis: Combat in Northern Alsace January 1945, Richard Engler,  pages 54 - 55
"Just Americans.  How Japanese Americans won a war at home and abroad.   The story of the 100th Battalion / 442d Regiment Combat Team in WWII."  Robert Asahia, (May 2006),  pages 202-204
"Policy Versus Strategy: The Defense of Strasbourg in Winter 1944-1945"  Franklin Louis Gurley,  The Journal of Military History, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Jul., 1994), 481-486.

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