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65 years ago, the U.S. Army reached the Rhine. David Colley’s book contains many lessons for future leaders. A must read that will leave you wishing we would turn back time .
What inspired you to write Decision at Strasbourg?
Studying WWII in Europe I was intrigued by mention in many histories that Lt. Gen. Deversâ€™ 7th Army reached the Rhine on November 24 1944 and that he planned a cross-river attack. This was four months before any of the other armies under Patton, Bradley and Montgomery reached the Rhine and yet no historian seemed interested in asking the elementary question: why didnâ€™t Devers cross, could he have crossed and what would have been the outcome and results? The usual explanation was that 6th Army Group was too far from the stated allied objective, the Ruhr Industrial Area, to have an effect or that Deversâ€™ didnâ€™t have the necessary logistical support or the punch to make the crossing.
So I started researching and found all these reasons to be bunk. Sixth Army Group was a sizable Army â€“ about 350,000 men â€“ and while it included the French First Army that was not completely up to par, the 7th Army under General Alexander Patch, was arguably the best and most combat tested army in Europe. It included the 36th, the 45th and the 3rd Divisions that had fought through Africa, Italy and France. And it was 7th Army that was to make the crossing just north of Strasbourg at Rastatt, Germany, not the French. As for being to far from the Ruhr, this too didnâ€™t make sense. Pattonâ€™s objective was the Saar Industrial Area and 7th Army wasnâ€™t that far from the Saar. Deversâ€™ objective was to cross and take the pressure off Pattonâ€™s 3rd Army by coming in behind the German 1st Army. This would have unleashed Patton to take the Saar. These moves probably would have released pressure farther to the north and allowed First Army and the British and Canadian armies to break the stalemate along the western front and reach the Ruhr.
I like to compare Deversâ€™ planned attack to a football game. How silly would it be for a coach not to take advantage of an opponentâ€™s week side and keep running and passing to its strong side? This is what Eisenhower and SHAEF were doing by attacking the enemy at its strongest points in the north. The German front opposite Devers in Alsace was the weakest one so weak that patrols found the defense on the German side empty.
How would have history been different in your view if General Eisenhower had not cancelled Lt. Gen. Jacob Devers’ Sixth Army Group planned attack across the Rhine in late November 1944?
I will let General Garrison Davidson address this issue. He was chief engineer for 6th Army Group during the war and later was 7th Army commander in Europe during the Cold War and Commandant at West Point:
â€śIt is interesting to conjecture what might have been the effect of the exploitation of an unexpected crossing of the Rhine in the south in late November or early December and an envelopment of the Ardennes to the north along the east bank of the Rhineâ€¦ I have often wondered what might have happened had Ike had the audacity to take a calculated risk, as General Patton would have instead of playing it safe. Perhaps success would have eliminated any possibility of the Battle of the Bulge, 40,000 (80,000 actually) casualties there would have been avoided and the war shortened by a number of months at the saving of other thousands of lives.â€ť
I also like to point out that even a feint might have yielded tremendous rewards. Had Devers sent over a few battalions with the idea of withdrawing them the Germans would still have to had to have responded and this response would have depleted their resources elsewhere thereby weakening their front. A feint alone might have caused the German front line to crumble. There wasnâ€™t much holding up the German front except dogged determination.
Why is General Devers and his 6th Army Group almost forgotten participants in the European War?
First, the invasion of southern France was considered a sideshow from the start, a diversion that wasnâ€™t supposed to go anywhere except provide a flank guard to Pattonâ€™s Third Army. That 6th Army Group was never included in SHAEF planning even after it became a powerful force. The focus of SHAEFâ€™s planning and the focus of public relations and the press was on the northern armies led by Patton, Bradley and Montgomery. Sixth Army Group was an orphan that never got much publicity. During the war most people did not recognize Devers name and didnâ€™t know how to pronounce it â€“ Deevers or Devers.
Also Devers never wrote his memoirs thus leaving his story to be interpreted by others and no one has ever written a comprehensive biography of the man. The history of WWII like so many wars was determined by the writings of other generals, most who served in the armies â€“ 12th and 21st Army Groups â€“ in northern France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Bradley, Patton, Montgomery and Eisenhower, penned their memoirs and histories and historians have generally followed their stories and rationalizations. Even most of the official histories are about the war in northern France, Belgium and Luxembourg. Historians take their cues and information from these sources. There is very little about 6th Army Group. The only biography I know of that relates in any way to southern France is Truscottâ€™s and his time in France was limited. Gen. Alexander Patch, commander of 7th Army in France, died in the fall of 1945 and never had time to write a biography. De Lattre of First French Army wrote a history but it is about the French. Brooks, who commanded 15th Corps, and Haislip, 6th Corps, never wrote biographies to my knowledge. Le Clerc, commanding 2nd French Armored Division that captured Strasbourg, was killed in a plane crash in 1946. Davidson lived a long life and retired a 4-star general and I quote from his unpublished memoir above, but he also gave an interview â€“ now housed in Washington â€“ in which vehemently argued that Deversâ€™ cross-Rhine attack could have changed the course of the war.
What are some of the lessons learned for future commanders that can be found in your book?
That an army should be flexible and generals and leaders of all ranks taught to take advantage of situations that arise such as Deversâ€™ Rhine crossing. This was one of Rommelâ€™s great traits â€“ when he saw a great tactical opportunity he acted upon it sometimes at great risk. He attacked when most would have stayed put or retreated. The German experience in Russia is another example, I believe, where their generals took advantage of opportunities even at great risk. The Gudarians stormed ahead when others would have acted cautiously. The American experience in Europe during WWII, I believe, reflects cautious leadership by most generals, Patton being the exception. There were other instances on the western front where a breakthrough was achieved but the leadership was unable to take advantage of the opportunities.