“Lost Victory”

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

General George Patton believed that he would be the first man on the banks of the Rhine, wrote to his wife that  Devers and his Seventh Army 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,  the Seventh Army 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 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 44th I.D. and other Seventh Army units assailed the unassailable.  Their order: Mission Impossible.  Break through the enemy’s winter line in the Vosges Mountains and cross the Rhine.  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.   Dever’s Seventh Army attacked.  Then, to everyone’s amazement, the Seventh Army 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.

gi infantry forward vosges mountainsThe day after the Strasbourg’s coup-de-main, Devers received Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley, at his headquarters at Vittel in the Vosges Mountains.  Instead of offering congratulations, the SHAEF commander came with the intent to borrow some of Seventh Army’s divisions.  Patton needed help in the Third Army’s stalled offensive just to the north.  Devers countered.   His proposal, strike boldly beyond the Rhine and bypass the German forces on the west bank.  And abandon Patton’s failed offensive and move the Third Army to Alsace under Devers’ command.   From this point, move Alexander “Sandy”  Patch and the Seventh Army across the Rhine for a northward push on the far side of the river inside Germany while Patton made a parallel drive northward on the near side 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.  And end the war in 1944 or early 1945.

This bold new decisive proposal startled his guests and his boss.  Genearl Omar Bradley fought against the plan with its transfer of Patton’s Third Army.  Eisenhower had nothing of this plan.   He did not even want Danvers’ forces to cross the Rhine, with or without Patton.  To General Patch and his Seventh Army staff, the Supreme Commander’s decision canceling the Rhine crossing amounted to a betrayal and smacked of favoritism.  It directly contradicted the formal orders under which the Seventh had brilliantly succeeded.  Eisenhower made no apologies nor explanations regarding ‘the why’  behind his changing 7th Army’s mission.   He 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.

Major General Robert L. Spragins 44th Infantry Division vosgesThe only point Devers won was to keep the divisions coveted by Patton.   Obviously the boss favored Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.  Monty and his 21st Army Group continued to hold priority in the race to Berlin.  Even though Monty stood pat, disobedient of his commander’s explicit order to go on the offensive, Eisenhower would not budge for his stated position.  Dever’s soldiers fought and won.  Bradley enjoyed a strong secondary priority from his long-time friend, mentor and now his commander, General Eisenhower.   Bradley benefited by receiving the bulk of U.S. troop replacements and supplies while  Devers divisions ran short.  In the face of such favoritism, only the Seventh Army armies 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 Seventh.  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 try.

Fate 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.  For this West Point graduate and  ‘favorite son’ instead of the command of an infantry platoon came 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.  History would have been different had the deserving got the due recognition, or at least allowed to continue what they were doing excellently. This is a story of how an internal conflict between morals destroyed a potential and remarkable victory in a path changing the war. The twisted fate of the seventh Army twisted the fate of the Strasbourg event, and I thought it to check it out in this post. The potential war ending and first to the Rhine River bridgehead at Strasbourg, with it’s superior Kehl Bridge, continues as the historical footnote.

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