German High Command in 1944 Ruckzug: The German Retreat from France, 1944. Joachim Ludewig. University of Kentucky Press. $28. 435 pages; black-and-white photographs; maps; index; notes; bibliography. Publisher website: www.kentuckypress.com.
Joachim Ludewig's Ruckzug: The German Retreat from France, 1944 is a recent addition to the outstanding work done by the German army's Military History Research Institute in Potsdam. The publication of these "official histories" of the German army in World War II adds depth and context to both the history and historiography of World War II. Ruckzug provides insight into the operational and strategic decision making in the German high command in the late summer and fall of 1944.
Ludewig makes several central arguments, all of them from the perspective of examining decisions by the German commander in the west based on the assessments that he and his subordinates made. Thus what field marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Walter Model knew and what they did about it are the chief focus, but Erwin Rommel, Günther von Kluge, Johannes Blaskowitz and other senior German commanders in theater are also considered. Ruckzug is a classic military history in that Ludewig aims to address gaps in the record but does so on the basis of critical analysis of, as he puts it, "the planning and the combat actions of the time within their geographic context, and above all from the German perspective." In this he succeeds, producing a lucid and clear-eyed criticism of decisions made on both sides.
By the summer of 1944, Germany's strategic position had declined to the point that little could be achieved that would alter the outcome. Hitler's grand scheme had failed once and for all at Kursk in 1943 and at sea in the battle for the Atlantic. What remained feasible, at least in Hitler's mind, was the defense of Fortress Europe. In the fall of 1943 following the end of his dreams in Russia, Hitler shifted his main effort west in response to the looming threat of a cross-channel invasion. The Allies had assembled nearly 40 divisions in Great Britain with the U.S. Army marshalling another 40 in the United States. Of these, eight Allied divisions landed in Normandy on June 6 opposed by six German divisions. Although the Allies did not enjoy an immediate or decisive advantage in numbers of ground troops, they did enjoy such an advantage in the air. In all, the Allies fielded some 8,000 aircraft against 400 to 500 German aircraft.
Ludewig highlights a number of problems and issues confronted by the German command in the west. Many of them have application today. Generating forces, visualizing outcomes, designating main effort, sustaining forces and reconstituting units in combat were just a few of the considerations that senior officers on both sides had to undertake in planning and execution. The Germans and the Allies had to fight "among the people." The French Resistance, while not decisive, certainly proved an irritant to the Germans while the Allies caused the death of many French civilians as "collateral damage." All of these are issues for contemporary soldiers as well. Taken together, these cover the bulk of variables or problems associated with exercising operational and even strategic command.
According to Ludewig, the senior German commanders in the west - including Model, von Rundstedt and most of their subordinates - excelled at thinking through these operational problems and achieving reasonable solutions. On the other hand, he finds the influence of Hitler singularly unhelpful and contends that Hitler made a difficult situation worse by his interventions. His account of how Model and von Rundstedt dealt with the competing requirements of the battlefield coupled with the demands of the German high command, and often Hitler himself, is riveting. He disparages the socalled Miracle in the West because it occurred not only as a consequence of the professionalism of the German army but also because of errors made by the Allies and by what Carl von Clausewitz would have described as the culmination driven by the Allied armies outrunning their logistics. …