Book Reviews

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Book Cover - The Longest Winter

The Longest Winter:
The Battle of the Bulge
and the Epic Story of
World War II's Most
Decorated Platoon

by Alex Kershaw

Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press
330 pages, $11.31
ISBN 03068 13041

Reviewed by Andrew Legge

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Alex Kershaw's account of the 18 Intelligence professionals who became America's most decorated platoon is a must-read for history and Intelligence enthusiasts. The story begins with a crystalline account of Colonel von Stauffenberg's attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944, and how the unintended consequence of the Führer's surviving the attack was a desire for a bold offensive, reinforced by a misguided sense of Divine protection. The latter is a key detail, and an important extension of the story that readers will not have gleaned from Bryan Singer's 2008 film, Valkyrie. Seeking to mimic Fredrick the Great's victory in the Seven Years' War by defeating a numerically-superior enemy through swift, massed attacks, Hitler ordered the full weight of the German military to mass on the Rhine River, where they would launch an all-out assault into Belgium to break the Allies' cohesion and their will to fight.

Positioned at the forward edge of the battle area, between two divisional boundaries, the U.S. Army’s 394 Regiment's Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon had only light weapons, no artillery support, and barely a month's experience in the European Theater of Operations (ETO). It was from this precarious start that this small group of untested soldiers began one of the most determined and effective defensives that became a critical part of the largest battle ever fought by American forces – the Battle of the Bulge. Unknown to the I&R platoon members until decades later, their actions changed the course of Hitler's plan to reach Antwerp by delaying his best soldiers – the vaunted SS Panzer Division led by Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Blow-torch’ Peiper and its supporting Fallschirmjäger (Airborne) division. After a full day of close-range fighting, and only after expending all their ammunition, were the platoon members captured and taken to several prisoner of war (POW) camps as the Allies pushed deeper into Germany.

Miraculously, all the I&R troops survived captivity, yet none spoke of their role in that battle. It was several decades before historians pieced together what Lieutenant Bouck and his men did at the Belgian village of Lanzerath, and uncovered a story that sparked national interest and led to the platoon’s belated official recognition. For extraordinary heroism and gallantry, the members of the I&R platoon were eventually awarded a Presidential Unit Citation; four Distinguished Service Crosses; five Silver Stars, and nine Bronze Stars with the “V” device for valour.

Kershaw's narrative instantly hooks the reader, while his detailed primary source research gives an exquisite account of what events unfolded and what actually occurred as the soldiers – both Allied and German – experienced them, including the exact amount of daylight that was available to the 394th's I&R platoon on the day of their capture. The author also draws out a number of lesser-known details to bolster the storyline. This includes the once-top secret raid ordered by General Patton to free his son-in-law from a nearby POW camp, where the officer chosen to lead this daring feat was the 10th Armoured Division's Intelligence Officer with the equivalent of a combat team under command.

In chronicling the book's shortcomings, the author does not explore two larger, intelligence-related details. First, why had Allied Intelligence staffs not anticipated the build-up on the Rhine?  Second, the author also fails to discuss how General Patton's Intelligence staffs foresaw this break-out, thereby allowing his army to rapidly counter-attack the Germans at the Bulge, which constitutes a diametric stance from Patton’s higher headquarters. Discussing these aspects would provide greater clarity and context to the reader with respect to the role Allied Intelligence played in the Battle of the Bulge.

However, in sum, this book is an important contribution to the field of military intelligence and Second World War history, while highlighting new areas for research, such as the actions which occurred at Elsenborn Ridge.

Major Andrew Legge, CD, is an Intelligence Officer (G2) with the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group stationed in Edmonton, Alberta.

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DND photo IS2002-2010a by Master-Corporal Frank Hudec

"Reconciliation", the Canadian Peacekeeping Monument on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, seen from the northeast.