“First off, I must say that I have not read Mr. Colley’s new book, DECISION AT STRASBOURG, and indeed I confess to not having read any of his work, so I don’t really have a good feel for it. I did read his op ed piece however, and also have read a good deal of work on this phase of the war in the ETO, from both the Allied and German perspectives.
I have pulled out my copy of my U.S. Army Atlas of the European Theater in World War II, which was compiled by the U.S. Army Center for Military History. I wanted to look at the maps that pertain to this particular time period, vis a vis Devers’ Sixth Army Group.
I believe that Sixth Army Group was the most southern of the Allied formations in the ETO. At this point in time, its northern flank abutted Patton’s Third Army, then part of 12th Army Group. Sixth Army Group comprised two armies, the U.S. Seventh [VI Corps---36 ID, 3 ID, 2nd French AD, 103 ID; and XV Corps---79 ID, 45 ID, 100 ID, 44 ID, 4th AD] and French First [II Corps---3 Algerian ID, 1 French ID; I Corps---2 Moroccan ID, 9 Colonial ID, 1 French AD].
On 26 November, just following the capture of Strasbourg, the Sixth Army Group front line ran along the Rhine from Basel in the south to near Karlsruhe in the north, a distance of roughly 120 miles. Mr. Colley suggests that Seventh Army could have crossed the Rhine at Rastatt (about 20 miles south of Karlsruhe) for the purpose of rolling up the German First Army, which he says was then impeding the further advance of U.S. Third Army. Thereafter, he theorizes, Third and Seventh Armies would have driven into Germany, bringing about its earlier demise, and saving the lives of 80,000 GIs.
Counterfactuals are always intriguing, and this one has much to recommend itself, not least of which is the notion that it would have saved all those GIs. There are some problems with it, however. The first is that even on 26 November the so-called Colmar Pocket had formed along the Rhine at the southern end of the Sixth Army Group line. It appears to have been about 60 miles long north to south, and at least 20 miles wide, all centered on the city of Colmar. There were three German Army Corps in that pocket—63d, 64th and 90th—and while these Army Corps were not comprised of any notable German divisions (716, 159, 338, 16, 189, 708, 198—-all Infantry, with no armor support that I can discern), they successfully resisted attacks by Seventh Army (on the north flank, 27 Nov.-4 Dec.) and French First (from all sides, 20 Jan.-5 Feb.) for six weeks. The units in the Colmar Pocket were part of German 19th Army, and I doubt whether anyone—Devers included, I should think—would have wanted to send the whole U.S. Seventh Army across the Rhine at Rastatt in a wide turning movement to get in behind German First Army, and leave in its rear seven German divisions, no matter how poor their quality.
A second problem with this counterfactual is the Battle of the Bulge, or rather the German units that were being assembled for the Ardennes offensive that began on 16 December. Assuming that Devers’ army group could have gotten itself together to launch the attack across the Rhine no earlier than 1 December (which would have given Devers a week after the capture of Strasbourg to get the assembly of his units finalized, get everyone on the same page tactically, get permission from Ike, etc.), his effort to get behind German First Army would have placed his army group into the same area—-or very near to it—where the German units were being assembled for the Ardennes offensive. Since no one on the Allied side picked up on the presence of these German units until the Ardennes offensive was in motion, the presence of these German units on his front and right flank would have been, it seems to me, a very nasty surprise for Devers, and one that likely would have thrown a spanner into the works.
Third, the counterfactual also ignores the German Operation NORDWIND, the offensive that began on Seventh Army’s front on New Years Eve, and lasted for a month. This was a companion to the Ardennes offensive, on a lesser scale, but one that nevertheless caused many Allied casualties, pushed Seventh Army back perhaps 30 miles, and was ultimately repulsed only with great effort. Needless to say, the German formations that took part in NORDWIND did not materialize over night, and in any case they likely would have been rushed to the scene of U.S. Seventh Army’s advance across the Rhine (assuming it began around 1 December), with a view to slicing off Seventh Army and doing whatever other damage that might be possible.
Finally, Mr. Colley’s counterfactual is problematic mainly because it (in my opinion) does not take into account the resiliency of the German Army. Mr. Colley is not alone in making this mistake, one that was made by plenty of very able Allied officers 60 years ago, and continues to be made by some military historians right down to the present.
My counterfactual surmises, of course, are about as worthwhile as Mr. Colley’s, and he might well be correct in thinking that Devers’ proposed advance would have been decisive in the ETO. I certainly do not claim to have special knowledge about the subject matter. Besides, Devers was a man of considerable talent and persistence. He was an innovative artillery officer, and in May, 1940 was made a Brigadier General at a time when 474 other Colonels were passed over. He also advanced another grade within five months. In July, ’41 he became chief of the armored force at Fort Knox, and in September, ’42 he was promoted again. In May ’43 Devers became head of the European Theater of Operations, and represented the US at COSSAC. After his successful command of Sixth Army Group, Devers was promoted to four star rank on 8 March ’45, just ahead of both Clark (?!) and Bradley.
Mr. Colley’s counterfactual may be just the latest round in the seemingly never-ending assault on Eisenhower’s generalship. George C. Marshall was a very strong patron of Devers, which apparently irked Eisenhower, who did not like either of them.