Eisenhower and the Broad Front vs. Single Thrust Strategy in the European Theater
Following the successful Allied invasion of the European continent on 6 June, 1944, General D.D. Eisenhower was placed in an unenviable position. As the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, he had to be a politician, a diplomat, a subordinate to the most powerful men in the world, and a superior to the most combat tested and senior generals in the Allied army. He was also faced with a strategic decision over how best to deploy Allied forces: Should the Allies drive straight to Berlin in an arrow like push (Single Thrust) or push on a broad front, able to protect their flanks against German counterattack?
Eisenhower was the man in the middle of everything. On one side, he had three superiors that he had to answer to; two officially, one unofficially. One was military, two were civilian. One was British, two were American. And none of the above were the same.
General George C. Marshall, as the Army Chief of Staff, was Eisenhower's immediate superior. Franklin D. Roosevelt, as President of the United States, was his Commander in Chief. Winston Churchill, an experienced military officer, was Prime Minister of Britain. Though Eisenhower was not directly answerable to him, he was still influenced by the living symbol of England, and could not afford to ignore nor offend him.
On the other side, Eisenhower had his subordinates. General Omar Bradley was in command of the U.S. 12th Army Group. General Bernard L. Montgomery commanded the British 21st Army Group. Thrown into this equation was the flamboyant, brilliant, and foul mouthed General George Patton, commanding the U.S. Third Army under Bradley. Eisenhower, technically the superior of all three, was junior to all three, as well as most of the generals he commanded.
The European Theater of Operations (ETO) received the majority of American manpower, supplies, publicity, and attention. Under the conditions of the war plan known as Rainbow Five, the Allies determined to concentrate on eliminating the Third Reich, and then turning their attention to the Rising Sun
The American military was under intense pressure to recapture the Continent. Not only did Americans have deep ancestral and cultural bonds with occupied Europe, but the British were concerned about their loss of face and dignity in France in 1940. Winston Churchill was particularly concerned about the effects of a Russian occupied Europe after the war, justifiably so. The American attitude was: Let's finish the war. The Americans were only concerned about the military side of the war. The British were concerned about the political aftershocks of the conflict.
Eisenhower had to contend with and balance these conflicting personalities, national interests, and military objectives. He also realized the tremendous effect that the news media could play on public perception of how the war was going. The Supreme Commander's primary concerns were:
1) No heavy Allied casualties. The British were at the end of their manpower rope. The predominantly isolationist American public would not stand for great numbers of flag draped coffins returning home.
2) No loss of face or reputation by his subordinate American field commanders. Eisenhower intimately understood the career progress of the officer corps. He knew that if it appeared, correctly or otherwise, that a commander was timid or unsuccessful, it could mean the end of his career.
3) He hoped that Germans would repeat their WW I performance and sign an armistice once the Allies reached the Rhine. He did not count on having to fight all the way into Germany. The Big Three demand of German unconditional surrender dismissed any possibility of an armistice. The Germans did not want to suffer another Versailles.
4) Eisenhower also feared that a deep thrust into Germany would suffer from vulnerable flanks, and would be subject to counterattacks; the advance force would be cut off and annihilated.
For all of the above reasons, Eisenhower adopted his broad front strategy in order to defeat the Wehrmacht. His intent was to push the Germans back everywhere, all along the Western front. He had adopted this strategy prior to D-Day, and for a period after D-Day, it seemed to be the correct course of action. Following Operation Cobra, the pre-invasion plans went out the window. The breakout and pursuit was far more successful than SHAEF had dreamed it would be.
Logistics became the primary problem for the Allies. The invasion planners, lacking optimism, had expected a much tougher fight. The Allies, subsequently, were not logistically prepared to exploit their tactical successes.
The result was that as Patton neared Metz, and Montgomery neared Antwerp, the Allied pursuit out ran its' supply line, slowed, and halted. Ironically, the Germans had the same problem in 1940 during their blitzkrieg of France. The Germans were tactically successful, but they were not prepared to exploit this and invade England. So doing, they might have won the war.
Field Marshal Montgomery's insistence on the single thrust strategy finally won Eisenhower's approval. The result was Operation Market-Garden, which failed. Eisenhower then reverted to his broad front strategy and maintained it through the rest of the war in the ETO.
The risks inherent in the single thrust strategy came to fruition with Patton's counterattack on the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans were stymied at a critical road intersection at Bastogne and were vulnerable on their flanks.
In retrospect, with all political and military issues considered, the Eastern Front and the Pacific war included, Eisnehower's strategy was sound. In another war, with a different foe, different Allies, and different terrain, the decision would have been incorrect. But Eisenhower did the job to which Marshall had appointed him. Eisenhower assessed the commander’s criteria of Mission, Enemy, Troops, Time and Terrain (METT-T), made his decision, and implemented it. That is the essence of command.
REFERENCE: Ambrose, Stephen. The Supreme Commander. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1970. Pages 412-24.