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Little known action that prepared for the 'saving' of the day
on May 25, 2007
John McManus is establishing himself as one of the leading scholars in the Second World War genre. With his latest book, "Alamo in the Ardennes: The Untold Story of the American Soldiers Who Made the Defense of Bastogne Possible", McManus scores a solid hit, both in terms of enjoyable and readable prose, and relative to filling a void in the historical literature. Many WWII-oriented books of late have subtitles including the words "The Untold Story..." and too few live up to their own hype. By contrast, McManus' book does in fact tell an otherwise untold (at least as a complete narrative limited to the Bastogne corridor) story. This fact alone makes "Alamo in the Ardennes" worthy of a read by anyone interested in the Battle of the Bulge, since all are familiar with the stand of the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne - this gallant action is branded in the American psyche - but few likely have a good picture of how American forces already in Belgium slowed the German drive sufficiently to provide enough time for the praised (deserved) 101st to get from their base in Mourmelon, France to the critical crossroads town of Bastogne in order to defend against the eventual siege. In fact, as McManus argues, the actions of the US Army in the Bastogne corridor likely determined that the eventual siege of Bastogne was in fact a siege instead of a Blitz through the region as might have occurred had the Germans reached Bastogne early in strength.
The central characters in "Alamo in the Ardennes" are the combat soldiers of the 28th ('Bloodybucket') Infantry Division, Combat Command Reserve (CCR) of the 9th Armored Division, and Combat Command B (CCB) of the 10th Armored Division. While McManus also integrates information about coordinated actions with smaller unit of the 101st Airborne, most of story is focused on the aforementioned units and their variously attached commands. Topographically the story revolves not so much around Bastogne but the so called 'Bastogne corridor', which McManus defines as roughly the 25 mile front held by the 28th before the German attack - approximately from Lutzkampen on the north to Bettendorf and Reisdorf in the south. This area was extremely important from a tactical standpoint relative to the movement of armored and vehicular traffic, as the roads running west in this region are some of the best in the Ardennes and Eiffel; certainly the quickest and most direct route to Bastogne lead through this area. McManus in now way minimizes actions in other regions of the Ardennes (e.g., northern shoulder actions) or the siege of Bastogne itself, but rather presents a compelling and exciting story that focuses on men and places cites above.
In general the book follows a chronological format, which works well to tell the story McManus wishes to convey. He begins the formal discussion of events with some chronologically mixed views of the Ardennes and actions on the Allied side prior to, and during, the initial German attack phases. This 'preface' chapter places the whole of the "Bastogne corridor' in nice perspective relative to the larger Battle of the Bulge. With the exception of the final 'Postscript' (conclusionary/summary) chapter, McManus devotes each chapter to a single day of action, beginning with 15 December and ending with the 20th, when the formal siege of Bastogne. In chaptering his book in this fashion McManus is able to pull the reader along the events as they unfolded. On a less positive note, focusing material along chronological lines rather than unit or geographical lines makes for often 'choppy' prose that one has to 'think' about a bit sometimes. This criticism could have been lessened considerably had the excellent maps McManus provides been cross-referenced within the text and a greater effort at sectioning within chapters been made. Yet, these are not fatal flaws and the book still conveys an important story in a readable form, that while not necessary impossible to put down, is nonetheless compelling.
In addition to the chapters outlined above McManus also provides ~20 pages of abbreviated TO/OB, personnel and map information that many readers will find useful. McManus' 'Notes' section of the book is extremely thorough and detailed. The one criticism that this reviewer would however have would be that the Notes are not cited in a very useful fashion in the text proper. Large sections of prose with multiple (oft disconnected) references/citations are generally clumped together as single footnotes, making backtracking of McManus' research very difficult. Of course this is a minor criticism unless someone is trying to delve deeper into the topic, in which case this approach will certainly cause some anxiety.
All in all "Alamo in the Ardennes" is a solid and very thoroughly researched book that provides a new vision of the Battle of the Bulge, at least in terms of capturing the importance of the "Bastogne corridor' in the eventual defense of Bastogne by the 101st Airborne. 4.5 stars for academic standard, 4 for general reader accessibility - solid 4 star book.