The Western Front, 24th March 1945


Since Normandy, the Anglo-American relationship had been put under some strain through political differences and mistrust. President Roosevelt's incorrect conviction that the British were determined to exploit the War to revitalise their waning Empire, whilst at the same time looking to Stalin as an honest man with whom he could do business, provoked no small degree of exasperation in Whitehall. The British, for their part, were reluctant to accept a secondary role in an Allied army now consisting of three Americans for every soldier of the Empire. The scale of their involvement and sacrifice was nevertheless considerable, yet where, in only recent memory, their voice had once dictated world policy, British opinion was carrying markedly less weight in the final months of the War, and it was frequently ignored altogether by the Americans. Yet the alliance was maintained and, one way or another, there was no doubt that Britain and America would see the War through to a mutually satisfactory conclusion. Montgomery, however, constantly exacerbated matters.


Since the Invasion of Sicily, in July 1943, when his 8th Army first came into close contact with US forces, he had effectively been pushing to become the Supreme Commander of the Allied effort by the back door; continually proposing initiatives that would see American armies attached to his command, thereby allowing him to oversee the major conduct of the War. In such matters the British accepted that they must take second place to the Americans; it was often the form that an American commander would have a British deputy, as did General Eisenhower in the person of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, but it was wholly inconceivable that US forces would take the field under the overall command of a foreigner. Montgomery did not entirely see matters this way, and, having scant regard for the abilities of the American generals, he continually sniped at them and asserted his own agenda until the end of the War.


In Normandy, under Eisenhower's supervision, Montgomery was granted command of all the American, British and Canadian forces in France until a break-through had been achieved in the German line. Although he came close to dismissal as a consequence of a perceived lack of progress and very high losses, Montgomery was certainly without peer, at least amongst the Western Allies, when it came to such a hard and ruthless battle of attrition. After the break-out, Montgomery assumed command for just his 21st Army Group whilst the overall conduct of the campaign came under the control of Eisenhower.


The Supreme Commander was an admirable politician and, without question, he was the ideal choice to keep in check the ambitions and vanities of both his generals and their political masters, and so ensure that the Allied effort advanced efficiently towards tangible objectives. As a military commander, however, even his most ardent advocates concede that his skills were limited. Throughout the campaign in Europe, his strategy was to push forward steadily and in line on all fronts, and no attempt was made to throw overwhelming resources behind one army for a bold, potentially decisive thrust into the enemy rear; the sort of offensive that was commonplace on both sides of the Eastern Front. As a consequence, although the line moved forward and his armies cut ever deeper into enemy-occupied territory, they only really captured land, and the bulk of the German forces were continually allowed to fall back and fight another day. Very rarely were they worried by the potential of any offensive to throw their entire front into disarray.


This lack of imagination drew constant criticism from Montgomery, who continued to push for Eisenhower's job. Despite numerous arguments, threats, and a good deal of friction, the situation proceeded smoothly enough until matters came to a head in the Ardennes. Despite all that had gone before, Eisenhower made the remarkably detached and pragmatic decision, risking the displeasure of his countrymen in the process, to grant Montgomery command of all forces in the Northern sector, including the larger parts of the 1st and 9th US Armies. Monty proceeded to handle his part of the battle front in a most satisfactory manner, even managing to draw grudging respect from some of his most entrenched critics. Politically, however, his intervention was a complete disaster, for he proved quite incapable of restraining himself at what was a most difficult and embarrassing moment for the US Army. His condescending manner during this moment of crisis, which was not at all helped by the anti-American tone of the British press at the time, left a bitter taste in the mouths of the senior American commanders, and a rift was created between them and Montgomery which could not be healed.


Despite requests from his own superiors to moderate his language in front of Eisenhower, Montgomery now saw more reason than ever for a change of leadership at the top, for the Ardennes, in his eyes, had proved how the Americans needed to be led the hand; or rather his hand. Whilst the US Army was, without any question, completely capable of looking after its own affairs, Montgomery perhaps had a point as far as Eisenhower was concerned. He had been badly shaken by the Ardennes offensive, and, although it was clear that the Wehrmacht was now spent, he became more cautious than ever, dreading to expose any part of his front lest the spectre of another German attack brought about a disaster. Even if anyone else had shared Montgomery's views, it is highly unlikely that Eisenhower would have been replaced at this late stage in the War, but if he had been then Montgomery's name would certainly have been at the very bottom of the list of his possible successors.


The net result of this bickering was that, whilst Montgomery was putting the finishing touches to his plans to cross the Rhine, the Americans to the south of him were determined to beat him to it. They were advancing in their sectors too and tactical necessity demanded that they cross the Rhine, but they were more than a little motivated to make a mockery of Montgomery's great show by establishing bridgeheads east of the Rhine before his first troops crossed.


General Bradley's 12th Army Group, advancing on the Rhine, had been desperately searching for any bridge over it that the Germans had not yet destroyed. On the 7th March, the 9th Armored Division of the 1st Army heard a rumour that the Ludendorff railway bridge at Remagen was still standing. They reached it late that afternoon and attacked without delay, running the risk of it being demolished beneath their feet. As the leading platoon fought its way across, an explosion holed the structure, but it remained intact, and so it was that the famous bridge at Remagan was captured with remarkably little difficulty. Despite initial opposition to the crossing by elements of Eisenhower's staff, the Supreme Commander overruled them and ordered General Bradley to secure the bridgehead by passing as many as five divisions across it, clearly inviting him to develop a major thrust in this area.


The 1st US Army had secured this bridgehead because it was available and because they needed it. Yet General Patton's mad dash to the Rhine on the 22nd March, culminating in a minor crossing by his 5th Division that same night, was intended to achieve nothing more than the opportunity to tell the world that his 3rd Army had beaten Montgomery to the Rhine. Patton's report to 12th Army Group makes no attempt to hide this fact, observing that the crossing had been made "without benefit of aerial bombing, ground smoke, artillery preparation and airborne assistance", which the British were, at that moment, making quite prodigious use of.