Podliska on Dick, 'From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944, Vol. 1, Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations'

Author: 
C. J. Dick
Reviewer: 
Bradley Podliska

C. J. Dick. From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944, Vol. 1, Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations. Modern War Studies Series. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2016. 456 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2293-1

Reviewed by Bradley Podliska (Air Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (May, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55826

C. J. Dick’s From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944 is a detailed, plodding, analytical work focused on an often overlooked level of war: operations. Nested between the D-Day landing success and the surprising German Ardennes counterattack, the book makes a compelling case that Allied mistakes in this six-month period prolonged the war and cost lives. Left unsaid but strongly implied, these operational mistakes also resulted in a postwar Soviet strategic advantage.

In the introduction, Dick explains why the Allied offensive culminated in September 1944, particularly after inflicting a crushing blow on the Wehrmacht a month earlier. The culmination was a result of several factors: Allied differences in operational doctrine, commanders subverting Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) plans, Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower failing to order one course of action (COA), the desire to move simultaneously along a broad front despite logistical shortcomings, and Allies resorting to attritional battles when maneuver warfare was the optimal choice. All of these factors have led to the argument that the Allies could have secured bridgeheads over the Rhine by the end of the summer at less cost.

In chapter 1, “Immature Armies,” Dick first defines the operational level as the “realm of the conception, planning, and execution of major operations and campaigns designed, through a succession of steps, to destroy the enemy’s centre of gravity” (p. 11). He then defines strategy, tactics, and operational art. Dick further argues that the interwar years produced maneuver warfare as the paradigm for military operations. The Germans and Soviets adopted it; the Americans and British did not. It was this failure—ignoring the concepts of time and exploitation to use maneuver to destroy the enemy—that resulted in a “semistalemate” on the western front (p. 42). Next, Dick cites the importance of the commanders and the ways the Allied theater, group, and army commanders blindly followed their respective country’s doctrine, which contributed to the slugfest. For the Allies, the problem was that “doctrine was applied not creatively or thoughtfully but mechanistically and inappropriately” (p. 48).

In chapter 2, “The Tipping Point,” the first seven weeks of the three-phase Normandy campaign are detailed. Dick credits General Bernard Montgomery’s operational idea to take Caen and fix Panzer Group West to allow General Omar Bradley to advance against Seventh Army and take Cherbourg. By July 25, the idea-turned-into-action created the conditions for “more decisive operations” (p. 73). The Germans had better quality tanks and machine guns. But, otherwise, the Allies dominated in all other military areas: one million more soldiers; half a million more trucks; twice the number of artillery pieces; an abundance of ammunition, fuel, and parts; and perhaps most important, air supremacy. Air surpremacy was achieved as a top priority, and the next priority, air interdiction, was also highly successful in isolating German forces, but Dick argues that close air support, the third priority, was “disappointing and not significant” (p. 98). Dick concludes the chapter with the game-changing value of Ultra, the main source of operational intelligence for the Allies.

In chapter 3, “July: Breakthrough and Near Breakthrough,” the contrast between the American Operation Cobra and British Operation Bluecoat is compared. With the former and in less than a week, the First Army turned the German Seventh Army western flank, opened the routes to Brittany, and “fatally compromised” the entire position of Army Group B (p. 130). The latter, which was designed to support Cobra, drove a wedge between Seventh Army and Panzer Group West but was wedded to British doctrine of gaining ground versus destroying the enemy.

In chapter 4, “August: Incomplete Encirclements,” Dick describes how the Germans were facing a dire situation—the annihilation of their forces in Normandy. The Allies moved to take advantage: trapping the Germans in the Falaise pocket with the Americans as the southern jaw and the British and Canadians as the northern jaw. Delays and poor tactics prevented the closing of the pocket in time, allowing 40,000 Germans to escape. By the end of August, the Germans had managed to get 240,000 troops across the Seine. Dick blames the British and Canadian army commanders with relying on doctrine of set-piece battles with massive firepower. General George Patton, on the other hand, understood operational art and the necessity of sealing the Seine exits. The group commanders, Montgomery and Bradley, made operational mistakes and became too focused on taking ground at the expense of destroying the enemy. Meanwhile, Eisenhower was a spectator on the operational sidelines. The end result was a Dunkirk-esque escape for the Germans with twelve-plus divisions escaping.

In chapter 5, “September: Operational Ideas and Developments on the Ground,” Dick addresses how Eisenhower selected a broad front strategy, a strategy that Montgomery protested incessantly. Eisenhower compromised and not only made the northern effort a priority for supply but also approved Montgomery’s Operation Market Garden, an audacious plan to secure crossings up to the Rhine. Market Garden failed; the result was a salient “leading to nowhere and difficult to defend” (p. 256). The 12 Army Group culminated as well, failing to reach the Rhine.

In chapter 6, “Logistic Realities,” Dick makes a vital contribution to future operational commanders: do not neglect logistic planning and operations as the Allies did in post-Normandy operations. The Allied system was designed for a linear, scheduled advance—one with an operational pause to open ports, extend railways and pipelines, and stock forward supply dumps. But Eisenhower’s decision to advance all armies on all fronts could not be sustained, and by October, there were thirty-three divisions in combat, when only twenty could be maintained. The result was an offensive that ground to a halt. For this, Dick makes the case that the Allies needed and should have focused on opening up Antwerp—a fact that was not realized until November 29.

In chapter 7, “Command, Operational Art, and Generalship,” Dick analyzes the generalships of Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, H. D. G. Crerar, Patton, Miles Dempsey, and Courtney Hodges. Collectively, the Americans and British commanders stuck stubbornly to their doctrine. Individually, some did better than others, but none rose above the nationalistic impulses to win the war single-handedly.

In the postscript, Dick draws three main conclusions. He argues that the defeat of the Germans at Falaise led to “victory disease” (p. 362). He maintains that doctrine was inadequate for the realities of the post-Normandy campaign. And he concludes that the lack of synergy was due to divergent British and American ideas.

Dick moves the reader to accept that interwar Allied doctrine was wrong and the German-Soviet concept of maneuver warfare was the correct operational approach. This movement is an attritional struggle based on repetition and more repetition. Perhaps, assuming the reader is picking up the book after a prolonged absence and needs a reminder of events in the summer of 1944, Dick repeats many of the same themes over and over again. These themes include the importance of Antwerp and the Scheldt estuary, the politically minded but operationally lacking Eisenhower, the constant ignoring of logistical realities, and the failed encirclement of the German army in Normandy. The importance of Antwerp, for example, is mentioned at least twenty times. Without this repetition, From Victory to Stalemate would be a 315-page read, freeing the reader to learn more about an interesting aspect that Dick surveys but does not cover in-depth: the interwar staff and command colleges that the British and American officers attended. Dick concludes that doctrinal inadequacies and historical experiences contributed to the semi-stalemate in 1944, but a section on the history and curriculum of professional military education would have offered material facts for Dick’s conclusion.

This section might also help overcome the truisms of ex post analysis. Dick suggests that the Allies had the intelligence and the operational advantage to not rely so heavily on firepower as opposed to maneuver. So, why did Eisenhower not employ the military revolution element of operational innovation? Perhaps, from Eisenhower’s ex ante perspective of air supremacy, numerical superiority, and a successfully created new front, the better choice was to act conservatively (in other words, rely on firepower to lessen casualties) and make sound strategic, Allied-centric decisions. Dick seems to answer this question in contrasting with the Soviet operational approach: radical ideas “were impossible for the armies of democratic states” (p. 365).

From Victory to Stalemate belongs on the desk of any staff officer, and it needs to be assigned reading in joint professional military education. Its level of detail and almost singular focus on the operational level of war is invaluable and necessary for any future commander.

Citation: Bradley Podliska. Review of Dick, C. J., From Victory to Stalemate: The Western Front, Summer 1944, Vol. 1, Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations. H-War, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55826

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