Review: Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, by Antony Beevor

The 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes forest “had brought the terrifying brutality of the eastern front to the west,” concludes Antony Beevor in this book. And “terrifying brutality” is an accurate description indeed of this month-long battle. Civilians were slaughtered in their scores — by both sides, though on the German side it was intentional. Prisoners of war were killed by both sides — though, to be fair, that began with the SS massacre of captured American soldiers early on. The everyday brutality of the Ardennes battle is shown in many individual episodes Beevor recounts. He describes an Allied soldier having hanged a German soldier’s corpse from a tree and lit a fire under it. Why do this? To defrost the frozen body so that he could remove the soldier’s boots. (German boots were apparently more water-resistant than the American ones.)

There are moments when it seems that the Germans might have had a chance. At one point hundreds of Luftwaffe planes take off — long after Allied commanders had written the German air force off as a fighting force. Elite SS Panzer divisions fight ferociously even in the final days of the battle. But in reality, there was never a moment, not even at the beginning of the offensive, when the Germans stood a chance of turning the tide of war. In fact, the main effect of Hitler’s decision to launch a last-ditch offensive in the west was to ease the Soviet offensive launched in January 1945, as so few troops were left to defend Germany’s eastern borders.

This is a detailed, authoritative account that works on all levels — from the high command down to individual soldiers and civilians. Probably the last book I will ever have to read about what Americans call “the battle of the bulge”.