Chapter 1

Victory Fever

Early on 27 August 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower left Chartres to see the newly liberated Paris. ‘It’s Sunday,’ the supreme allied commander told General Omar Bradley, whom he took with him. ‘Everyone will be sleeping late. We can do it without any fuss.’ Yet the two generals were hardly inconspicuous as they bowled along towards the French capital on their supposedly ‘informal visit’. The supreme commander’s olive-drab Cadillac was escorted by two armoured cars, and a Jeep with a brigadier general leading the way.

When they reached the Porte d’Orléans, an even larger escort from the 38th Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron awaited in review order under the orders of Major General Gerow. Leonard Gerow, an old friend of Eisenhower, still seethed with resentment because General Philippe Leclerc of the French 2nd Armoured Division had consistently disobeyed all his orders during the advance on Paris. The day before, Gerow, who considered himself the military governor of Paris, had forbidden Leclerc and his division to take part in General de Gaulle’s procession from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame. He had told him instead to ‘continue on present mission of clearing Paris and environs of enemy’. Leclerc had ignored Gerow throughout the liberation of the capital, but that morning he had sent part of his division north out of the city against German positions around Saint-Denis.

The streets of Paris were empty because the retreating Germans had seized almost every vehicle that could move. Even the Métro was unpredictable because of the feeble power supply; in fact the so-called ‘City of Light’ was reduced to candles bought on the black market. Its beautiful buildings looked faded and tired, although they were mercifully intact. Hitler’s order to reduce it to ‘a field of rubble’ had not been followed. In the immediate aftermath of joy, groups in the street still cheered every time they caught sight of an American soldier or vehicle. Yet it would not be long before the Parisians started muttering ‘Pire que les boches’ – ‘Worse than the Boches’.

Despite Eisenhower’s remark about going to Paris ‘without any fuss’, their visit had a definite purpose. They went to meet General Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the French provisional government which President Roosevelt refused to recognize. Eisenhower, a pragmatist, was prepared to ignore his President’s firm instruction that United States forces in France were not there to install General de Gaulle in power. The supreme commander needed stability behind his front lines, and since de Gaulle was the only man likely to provide it, he was willing to support him.

Neither de Gaulle nor Eisenhower wanted the dangerous chaos of liberation to get out of hand, especially at a time of frenzied rumours, sudden panics, conspiracy theories and the ugly denunciations of alleged collaborators. Together with a comrade, the writer J.D.Salinger, a Counter Intelligence Corps staff sergeant with the 4th Infantry Division, had arrested a suspect in an action close to the Hôtel de Ville, only for the crowd to drag him away and beat him to death in front of their eyes. De Gaulle’s triumphal procession the day before from the Arc de Triomphe to Notre Dame had ended in wild fusillades within the cathedral itself. This incident convinced de Gaulle that he must disarm the Resistance and conscript its members into a regular French army. A request for 15,000 uniforms was passed that very afternoon to SHAEF – the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Unfortunately, there were not enough small sizes because the average French male was distinctly shorter than his American contemporary.

De Gaulle’s meeting with the two American generals took place in the ministry of war in the rue Saint-Dominique. This was where his short-lived ministerial career had begun in the tragic summer of 1940, and he had returned there to emphasize the impression of continuity. His formula for erasing the shame of the Vichy regime was a majestically simple one: ‘The Republic has never ceased to exist.’ De Gaulle wanted Eisenhower to keep Leclerc’s division in Paris to ensure law and order, but since some of Leclerc’s units had now started to move out, he suggested that perhaps the Americans could impress the population with ‘a show of force’ to reassure them that the Germans would not be coming back. Why not march a whole division or even two through Paris on its way to the front? Eisenhower, thinking it slightly ironic that de Gaulle should be asking for American troops ‘to establish his position firmly’, turned to Bradley and asked what he thought. Bradley said that it would be perfectly possible to arrange within the next couple of days. So Eisenhower invited de Gaulle to take the salute, accompanied by General Bradley. He himself would stay away.

On their return to Chartres, Eisenhower invited General Sir Bernard Montgomery to join de Gaulle and Bradley for the parade, but he refused to come to Paris. Such a small but pertinent detail did not deter certain British newspapers from accusing the Americans of trying to hog all the glory for themselves. Inter-Allied relations were to be severely damaged by the compulsion in Fleet Street to see almost every decision by SHAEF as a slight to Montgomery and thus the British. This reflected the more widespread resentment that Britain was being sidelined. The Americans were now running the show and would claim the victory for themselves. Eisenhower’s British deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, was alarmed by the prejudice of the English press: ‘From what I heard at SHAEF, I could not help fearing that this process was sowing the seeds of a grave split between the Allies.’

The following evening the 28th Infantry Division, under its commander, Major General Norman D. Cota, moved from Versailles towards Paris in heavy rain. ‘Dutch’ Cota, who had shown extraordinary bravery and leadership on Omaha beach, had taken over command less than two weeks before, after a German sniper had killed his predecessor. The fighting in the heavy hedgerow country of Normandy had been slow and deadly during June and July, but the breakout led by General George C. Patton’s Third Army at the beginning of August had produced a surge of optimism during the charge to the River Seine and Paris itself.

Showers had been set up for Cota’s men in the Bois de Boulogne so that they could scrub themselves before the parade. The next morning, 29 August, the division set off up the Avenue Foch to the Arc de Triomphe, and then down the long vista of the Champs-Elysées. Helmeted infantry, with rifles slung and bayonets fixed, marched in full battle order. The mass of olive-drab, rank after rank twenty-four men abreast, stretched right across the broad avenue. Each man on his shoulder wore the divisional badge, the red ‘Keystone’ symbol of Pennsylvania, which the Germans had dubbed the ‘bloody bucket’ from its shape.

The French were amazed, both by the informality of American uniforms and by their seemingly limitless quantities of machinery. ‘Une armée de mécanos,’ the diarist Jean Galtier-Boissière remarked. On the Champs-Elysées that morning, the French crowds could not believe that a single infantry division could have so many vehicles: countless Jeeps, some with .50 machine guns mounted behind; scout-cars; the artillery, with their 155mm ‘Long Tom’ howitzers towed by tracked prime-movers; engineers; service units with small trucks and ten-tonners; M-4 Sherman tanks, and tank destroyers. This display made the Wehrmacht, the apparently invincible conqueror of France in 1940, appear bizarrely old-fashioned with its horse-drawn transport.

The saluting dais was on the Place de la Concorde. Army engineers had created it out of assault boats turned upside down and concealed by a long tricolour valance, while numerous Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze. In front the fifty-six-piece band, which had led the parade, played the division’s march, ‘Khaki Bill’. The French crowds watching the show may not have guessed, but all the soldiers knew that the 28th Division was headed against the German positions on the northern edge of the city. ‘It was one of the most remarkable attack orders ever issued,’ Bradley remarked later to his aide. ‘I don’t think many people realized the men were marching from parade into battle.’

On the Channel coast, the Canadian First Army had to capture the great port of Le Havre, while the Second British Army pushed north-east into the Pas de Calais towards some of the German V-weapon sites. Despite the exhaustion of tank drivers and a terrible storm on the night of 30–31 August, the Guards Armoured Division seized Amiens and the bridges over the Somme with the help of the French Resistance. General der Panzertruppe Heinrich Eberbach, the commander of the Fifth Panzer Army, was taken unawares the next morning. The British advance then managed to drive a wedge between the remains of the Fifth Panzer Army and the Fifteenth Army, which had held the Pas de Calais. The Canadians, led by the Royal Regiment of Canada, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish, headed for Dieppe where they had suffered so grievously in the disastrous raid two years before.

Allied victory euphoria could not have been greater at that time. The July bomb plot that summer against Hitler had encouraged the idea that disintegration had started, rather like in 1918, but in fact the failure of the assassination attempt had strengthened Nazi domination immeasurably. The G-2 intelligence department at SHAEF blithely claimed, ‘The August battles have done it, and the enemy in the west has had it.’ In London, the war cabinet believed it would all be over by Christmas, and set 31 December as the end of the war for planning purposes. Only Churchill remained wary of the German determination to fight on. In Washington a similar assumption allowed attention to turn increasingly to the still desperate fight against the Japanese in the Pacific. The US War Production Board began cancelling military contracts, including those for artillery shells.

Many Germans also thought the end had come. Oberstleutnant Fritz Fullriede in Utrecht wrote in his diary: ‘The West Front is finished, the enemy is already in Belgium and on the German frontier; Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and Finland are pleading for peace. It is exactly like 1918.’ In a Berlin railway station protesters had dared to put up a banner which read: ‘We want peace at any price.’ On the eastern front the Red Army had crushed Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, which had taken them 500 kilometres forward to the gates of Warsaw and the River Vistula. In three months the Wehrmacht had lost 589,425 men on the eastern front and 156,726 in the west.

The dash to the Vistula had encouraged the brave but doomed Warsaw uprising of the Armia Krajowa. Stalin, not wanting an independent Poland, callously allowed the insurgents to be crushed by the Germans. East Prussia, with Hitler’s headquarters at the Wolfsschanze near Rastenburg, was also threatened, and German armies were collapsing in the Balkans. Just two days before the liberation of Paris, Romania defected from the Axis as Soviet armies surged across its borders. On 30 August, the Red Army entered Bucharest and occupied the vital oilfields of Ploeşti. The way lay open to the Hungarian plain and the River Danube stretched ahead into Austria and Germany itself.

In mid-August, General George Patton’s Third Army charged from Normandy to the Seine. This coincided with the successful Operation Dragoon landings between Cannes and Toulon on the Mediterranean coast. The threat of being cut off prompted a massive German withdrawal right across the country. Members of the Vichy Milice who knew what awaited them at the hands of the Resistance also set out across hostile territory, in some cases for up to a thousand kilometres, to seek safety in Germany. Improvised ‘march groups’, a mixture of army, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and non-combatant personnel from the Atlantic coast were ordered to escape east, while attempting to evade the French Resistance along the way. The Wehrmacht began to reinforce a salient around Dijon to receive almost a quarter of a million Germans. Another 51,000 soldiers were left trapped on the Atlantic coast and Mediterranean. Major ports were designated as ‘fortresses’ by the Führer even though there was no hope of ever relieving them. This denial of reality was described by one German general as being like a Catholic priest on Good Friday who sprinkles his plate of pork with holy water and says: ‘You are fish.’

Hitler’s paranoia had reached new heights in the wake of the 20 July bomb plot. In the Wolfsschanze in East Prussia, he went far beyond his earlier jibes that the German general staff was just ‘a club of intellectuals’. ‘Now I know why all my great plans in Russia had to fail in recent years,’ he said. ‘It was all treason! But for those traitors, we would have won long ago.’ Hitler hated the July plotters, not just because of their treachery, but because of the damage they had done to the impression of German unity, and the effect this had on the Third Reich’s allies and neutral states.

At the situation conference on 31 August, Hitler declared: ‘There will be moments in which the tension between the Allies will become so great that the break will happen. Coalitions in world history have always been ruined at some point.’ The propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels rapidly picked up on the Führer’s line of thinking at a conference of ministers in Berlin soon afterwards. ‘It is certain that the political conflicts will increase with the apparent approach of an Allied victory, and some day will cause cracks in the house of our enemies which no longer can be repaired.’

The chief of the general staff of the Luftwaffe, General der Flieger Werner Kreipe, noted in his diary on that last day of August: ‘In the evening reports arrive of the collapse in the west.’ A frenzy of activity continued through most of the night with ‘orders, instructions, telephone conversations’. The next morning, Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, the chief of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) asked the Luftwaffe to transfer another 50,000 men to ground forces. On 2 September, Kreipe noted: ‘Apparently disintegration has set in in the west, Jodl [chief of the Wehrmacht planning staff] surprisingly calm. The Finns detach themselves.’ During that day’s conference Hitler began insulting the Finnish leader, Marshal Mannerheim. He also became angry that Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring did not bother to turn up at such a critical moment and even suggested disbanding the Luftwaffe’s squadrons and transferring flight crews to flak units.

With Red Army forces now on the East Prussian border, Hitler was afraid of a Soviet parachute operation to capture him. The Wolfsschanze had been turned into a fortress. ‘By now a huge apparatus had been constructed,’ wrote his secretary Traudl Junge. ‘There were barriers and new guard posts everywhere, mines, tangles of barbed wire, watchtowers.’

Hitler wanted an officer whom he could trust to command the troops defending him. Oberst Otto Remer had brought the Grossdeutschland guard battalion in Berlin to defeat the plotters on 20 July, so on hearing of Remer’s request to be posted back to a field command, Hitler summoned him to form a brigade to guard the Wolfsschanze. Initially based on the Berlin battalion and the Hermann Göring Flak Regiment with eight batteries, Remer’s brigade grew and grew. The Führer Begleit, or Führer Escort, Brigade was formed in September ready to defend the Wolfsschanze against ‘an air landing of two to three airborne divisions’. What Remer himself called this ‘unusual array’ of combined arms was given absolute priority in weapons, equipment and ‘experienced front-line soldiers’ mostly from the Grossdeutschland Division.

The atmosphere in the Wolfsschanze was profoundly depressed. For some days Hitler retired to his bed and lay there listlessly while his secretaries were ‘typing out whole reams of reports of losses’ from both eastern and western fronts. Göring meanwhile was sulking on the Hohenzollern hunting estate of Rominten which he had appropriated in East Prussia. After the failure of his Luftwaffe in Normandy, he knew that he had been outmanoeuvred by his rivals at the Führer’s court, especially the manipulative Martin Bormann who was eventually to prove his nemesis. His other opponent, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, had been given command of the Ersatzheer – the Replacement Army – in whose headquarters the bomb plot had been hatched. And Goebbels appeared to have complete command of the home front, having been appointed Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort. But Bormann and the Gauleiters could still thwart almost any attempt to exert control over their fiefdoms.

Although most Germans had been shocked by the attempt on Hitler’s life, a steep decline in morale soon followed as Soviet forces advanced to the borders of East Prussia. Women above all wanted the war to end and, as the security service of the SS reported, many had lost faith in the Führer. The more perceptive sensed, however, that the war could not end while he remained alive.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the successes of that summer, rivalries were stirring in the highest echelons of the Allied command. Eisenhower, ‘a military statesman rather than a warlord’ as one observer put it, sought consensus, but to the resentment of Omar Bradley and the angry contempt of George Patton, he seemed bent on appeasing Montgomery and the British. The debate, which was to inflame relations throughout the rest of 1944 and into the new year, had begun on 19 August.

Montgomery had demanded that almost all Allied forces should advance under his command through Belgium and Holland into the industrial region of the Ruhr. After this proposal had been rejected, he wanted his own 21st Army Group, supported by General Courtney Hodges’s First Army, to take this route. This would enable the Allies to capture the V-weapon launch sites bombarding London and take the deep-water port of Antwerp, which was vital to supply any further advances. Bradley and his two army commanders, Patton and Hodges, agreed that Antwerp must be secured, but they wanted to go east to the Saar, the shortest route into Germany. The American generals felt that their achievements in Operation Cobra, and the breakout all the way to the Seine led by Patton’s Third Army, should give them the priority. Eisenhower, however, knew well that a single thrust, whether by the British in the north or by the Americans in the middle of the front, ran grave political dangers, even more than military ones. He would have the press and the politicians in either the United States or Great Britain exploding with outrage if their own army was halted because of supply problems while the other pushed on.

On 1 September, the announcement of the long-standing plan for Bradley, who had technically been Montgomery’s subordinate, to assume command of the American 12th Army Group prompted the British press to feel aggrieved once again. Fleet Street saw the reorganization as a demotion for Montgomery because, with Eisenhower now based in France, he was no longer ground forces commander. This problem had been foreseen in London, so to calm things down Montgomery was promoted to field marshal (which in theory made him outrank Eisenhower, who had only four stars). Listening to the radio that morning, Patton was sickened when ‘Ike said that Monty was the greatest living soldier and is now a Field Marshal.’ No mention was made of what others had achieved. And after a meeting at Bradley’s headquarters next day, Patton, who had led the charge across France, noted: ‘Ike did not thank or congratulate any of us for what we have done.’ Two days later his Third Army reached the River Meuse.

In any event, the headlong advance by the US First Army and the British Second Army to Belgium proved to be one of the most rapid in the whole war. It might have been even faster if they had not been delayed in every Belgian village and town by the local population greeting them with rapture. Lieutenant General Brian Horrocks, the commander of XXX Corps, remarked that ‘what with Champagne, flowers, crowds and girls perched on the top of wireless trucks, it was difficult to get on with the war’. The Americans also found that their welcome in Belgium was far warmer and more enthusiastic than it had been in France. On 3 September, the Guards Armoured Division entered Brussels to the wildest scenes of jubilation ever.

The very next day, in a remarkable coup de main, Major General ‘Pip’ Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division entered Antwerp. With the assistance of the Belgian Resistance, they seized the port before the Germans could destroy its installations. The 159th Infantry Brigade attacked the German headquarters in the park, and by 20.00 hours the commander of the German garrison had surrendered. His 6,000 men were marched off to be held in empty cages in the zoo, the animals having been eaten by a hungry population. ‘The captives sat on the straw,’ Martha Gellhorn observed, ‘staring through the bars.’ The fall of Antwerp shocked Führer headquarters. ‘You had barely crossed the Somme,’ General der Artillerie Walter Warlimont acknowledged to his Allied interrogators the following year, ‘and suddenly one or two of your armoured divisions were at the gates of Antwerp. We had not expected any breakthrough so quickly and nothing was ready. When the news came it was a bitter surprise.’

The American First Army also moved fast to catch the retreating Germans. The reconnaissance battalion of the 2nd Armored Division, advancing well ahead of other troops, identified the enemy’s route of withdrawal, then took up ambush positions with light tanks in a village or town just after dark. ‘We would let a convoy get within [the] most effective range of our weapons before we opened fire. One light tank was used to tow knocked out vehicles into hiding among buildings in the town to prevent discovery by succeeding elements. This was kept up throughout the night.’ One American tank commander calculated that from 18 August to 5 September his tank had done 563 miles ‘with practically no maintenance’.

On the Franco-Belgian border, Bradley’s forces had an even greater success than the British with a pincer movement meeting near Mons. Motorized units from three panzer divisions managed to break out just before the US 1st Infantry Division sealed the ring. The paratroopers of the 3rd and 6th Fallschirmjäger-Divisions were bitter that once again the Waffen-SS had saved themselves, leaving everybody else behind. The Americans had trapped the remnants of six divisions from Normandy, altogether more than 25,000 men. Until they surrendered they were sitting ducks. The 9th Infantry Division artillery reported: ‘We employed our 155mm guns in a direct fire role against enemy troop columns, inflicting heavy casualties and contributing to the taking of 6,100 prisoners including three generals.’

Attacks by the Belgian Resistance in the Mons pocket triggered the first of many reprisals, with sixty civilians killed and many houses set on fire. Groups of the Armée Secrète from the Mouvement National Belge, the Front de l’Indépendance and the Armée Blanche worked closely with the Americans in the mopping-up stage. The German military command became angry and fearful of a mass rising as their forces retreated through Belgium to the safety of the Westwall, or Siegfried Line as the Allies called it. Young Belgians flocked to join in the attacks, with terrible consequences both at the time and later in December when the Ardennes offensive brought back German forces, longing for revenge.

On 1 September, in Jemelle, near Rochefort in the northern Ardennes, Maurice Delvenne watched the German withdrawal from Belgium with pleasure. ‘The pace of the retreat by German armies accelerates and seems increasingly disorganized,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Engineers, infantry, navy, Luftwaffe and artillery are all in the same truck. All of these men have obviously just been in the combat zone. They are dirty and haggard. Their greatest concern is to know how many kilometres still separates them from their homeland, and naturally we take a spiteful pleasure in exaggerating the distance.’

Two days later SS troops, some with bandaged heads, passed by Jemelle. ‘Their looks are hard and they stare at people with hatred.’ They were leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, by burning buildings, tearing down telegraph lines and driving stolen sheep and cattle before them. Farmers in the German-speaking eastern cantons of the Ardennes were ordered to move with their families and livestock back behind the Siegfried Line and into the Reich. News of the Allied bombing was enough to discourage them, but most simply did not want to leave their farms, so they hid with their livestock in the woods until the Germans had gone.

On 5 September, the exploits of young résistants provoked the retreating Germans into burning thirty-five houses beside the N4 highway from Marche-en-Famenne towards Bastogne, near the village of Bande. Far worse was to follow on Christmas Eve when the Germans returned in the Ardennes offensive. Ordinary people were terrified by the reprisals that followed Resistance attacks. At Buissonville on 6 September the Germans took revenge for an attack two days before. They set fire to twenty-two houses there and in the next-door village.

Further along the line of retreat, villagers and townsfolk turned out with Belgian, British and American flags to welcome their liberators. Sometimes they had to hide them quickly when yet another fleeing German detachment appeared in their main street. Back in Holland at Utrecht, Oberstleutnant Fritz Fullriede described ‘a sad platoon of Dutch National Socialists being evacuated to Germany, to flee the wrath of the native Dutch. Lots of women and children.’ These Dutch SS had been fighting at Hechtel over the Belgian border. They had escaped the encirclement by swimming a canal, but ‘the wounded officers and men who wanted to give themselves up were for the most part – to the discredit of the British [who apparently stood by] – shot by the Belgians’. Both Dutch and Belgians had much to avenge after four years of occupation.

The German front in Belgium and Holland appeared completely broken. There was panic in the rear with chaotic scenes which prompted the LXXXIX Army Corps to speak in its war diary of ‘a picture that is unworthy and disgraceful for the German army’. Feldjäger Streifengruppen, literally punishment groups, seized genuine stragglers and escorted them to a collection centre, or Sammellager. They were then sent back into the line under an officer, usually in batches of sixty. Near Liège, around a thousand men were marched to the front by officers with drawn pistols. Those suspected of desertion were court-martialled. If found guilty, they were sentenced either to death or to a Bewährungsbataillon (a so-called probation battalion, but in fact more of a punishment or Strafbataillon). Deserters who confessed, or who had put on civilian clothes, were executed on the spot.

Each Feldjäger wore a red armband with ‘OKW Feldjäger’ on it and possessed a special identity card with a green diagonal stripe which stated: ‘He is entitled to make use of his weapon if [he is] disobeyed.’ The Feldjäger were heavily indoctrinated. Once a week an officer lectured them on ‘the world situation, the impossibility of destroying Germany, on the infallibility of the Führer and on underground factories which should help outwit the enemy’.

Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model’s ‘Appeal to the Soldiers of the Army of the West’ went unheeded when he called on them to hold on, to gain time for the Führer. The most ruthless measures were taken. Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel ordered on 2 September that ‘malingerers and cowardly shirkers, including officers’ should be executed immediately. Model warned that he needed a minimum of ten infantry divisions and five panzer divisions if he were to prevent a breakthrough into northern Germany. No force of that magnitude was available.

The retreat in the north along the Channel coast had been much more orderly, mainly thanks to the delayed pursuit of the Canadians. General der Infanterie Gustav von Zangen had conducted the withdrawal of the Fifteenth Army from the Pas de Calais to northern Belgium in an impressive manner. Allied intelligence was severely mistaken when it stated that ‘the only reinforcements known to be arriving in Holland are the demoralized and disorganized remnants of the Fifteenth Army now escaping from Belgium by way of the Dutch islands’.

The sudden seizure of Antwerp may have been a severe blow to the German high command, but over the following days, when the British Second Army failed to secure the north side of the Scheldt estuary, General von Zangen managed to establish defence lines. These included a twenty-kilometre-wide redoubt on the south side of the mouth of the Scheldt, the South Beveland peninsula on the north side and the island of Walcheren. His force soon mustered 82,000 men and deployed some 530 guns which prevented any attempt by the Royal Navy to approach the heavily mined estuary.

Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, the Allied naval commander-in-chief, had told SHAEF and Montgomery that the Germans could block the Scheldt estuary with ease. And Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, the First Sea Lord, warned that Antwerp would be ‘as much use to us as Timbuctoo’ unless the approaches were cleared. General Horrocks, the corps commander, later admitted his own responsibility for the failure. ‘Napoleon, no doubt, would have realized this,’ he wrote, ‘but I am afraid Horrocks didn’t.’ But it was not the fault of Horrocks, nor of Roberts, the commander of the 11th Armoured Division. The mistake lay with Montgomery, who was not interested in the estuary and thought that the Canadians could clear it later.

It was a massive error and led to a very nasty shock later, but in those days of euphoria generals who had served in the First World War convinced themselves that September 1944 was the equivalent of September 1918. ‘Newspapers reported a 210-mile advance in six days and indicated that Allied forces were in Holland, Luxembourg, Saarbrücken, Brussels and Antwerp,’ wrote the combat historian Forrest Pogue. ‘The intelligence estimates all along the lines were marked by an almost hysterical optimism.’ The eyes of almost every senior officer were fixed on the Rhine, with the idea that the Allies could leap it in virtually one bound. This vision certainly beguiled Eisenhower, while Montgomery, for his own reasons, had become besotted with it.