Make No Mistake – Use Your Advantages

David Colley wrote an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times: “How World War II Wasn’t Won” ( Nov. 23, 2009 ). Mr. Colley stated that “Eisenhower was also a cautious, some would say indecisive, commander who favored a ‘broad front’ strategy with all Allied armies moving in tandem on a solid front. . . . Had Eisenhower let [Lt. General Jacob] Devers make his attack [in November 1944], we might now be celebrating the 65th anniversary of a cross-Rhine attack that quickly ended the war in Europe.”

Ike didn’t make a mistake by rushing across the Rhine . Several of Ike’s generals had dreams of attacking over the Rhine : Devers, George Patton, and even the ultra-cautious Bernard Montgomery all wanted to dash across the Rhine . They all wanted to seize German territory. And they all ignored four crucial items — the Allies didn’t have the supply lines in place to sustain a thrust deep over the Rhine (they wouldn’t until late December 1944 a month after Ike stopped Devers).

The second item is that they were obsessed with territory — Ike, on the other hand, wanted to destroy the Germans’ fighting abilities, which meant destroying the Wehrmacht. In this Eisenhower was like Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War. Grant didn’t want to take the Confederate capital at Richmond , Virginia — he wanted to defeat Robert E. Lee once and for all in the field. The minute Grant succeeded, the war ended.

The third item Devers et al failed to consider was that the Germans had a lot of fight left in them – they were not about to collapse. The surge in the Ardennes in December 1944 proved that. And finally, Devers, Patton and Montgomery failed to consider that with the Germans established in defensive positions to the east of the Rhine , it would be much easier for them to block a single thrust across the Rhine . Eisenhower proved that conclusively by turning the Germans single thrust in the Battle of the Bulge into a disastrous defeat for the Wehrmacht.

Mr. Polley’s article calls Ike’s broad front strategy cautious, and many historians have characterized it that way. But I agree with historian and Eisenhower biographer Stephen E. Ambrose that the broad front was bold and innovative. Traditional doctrine calls for a concentration of forces not a broad front. But Ike realized that the strength of his forces was their tremendous mobility. The only way to utilize his mobility was attack along a broad front, pressuring the Germans almost everywhere. The Germans didn’t have the capability to defend against such immense pressure in so many places.

This is a bit like Microsoft going after Netscape Navigator. Once upon a time, more than 80% of all in Internet browsers in use were Netscape. Microsoft had three huge advantages that Netscape couldn’t defend against: Microsoft could apply programming muscle on a gigantic scale by assigning masses of programmers to create its browser (Internet Explorer), and Microsoft could integrate Explorer with its ubiquitous operating system, Windows. Finally, Microsoft could afford to give away Explorer, and it’s hard to beat a price point of $0. Today Internet Explorer is used by approximately 80% of all Web travelers. And Netscape has virtually disappeared.

Microsoft used its advantages to go from nothing to dominant within a couple of years. And, by boldly using his advantages, Ike won the war against the Nazis as fast as was possible.

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