The Battle of the Bulge. To some historians, the mentioning of this Battle is an example of arrogance, cowardice, and a breakdown in military intelligence, but for others it is an example of courage and heroism in dire times. Alex Kershaw is in this latter group. In his book, The Longest Winter, he details the experiences of a small group of men as they tried to stop the German onslaught.
In true Kershaw fashion, the book describes a battle during World War II from the perspective of the troops based on their own words. In this case, it’s the Intelligence and Reconnaissance (I&R) Platoon of the 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division and their fight on December 16, 1944 â€“ the beginning of the German assault on American lines in the Battle of the Bulge. Kershaw briefly details how the men in the platoon came together and trained for combat. He then recounts their fight with the Germans and their subsequent capture and imprisonment in various POW camps.
Kershaw shines new light on a topic that has been studied ad nauseam. Previous books that I have read about the Battle described how two green infantry divisions, the 99th and the 106th, were put in a quiet or “ghost” front to acclimate them slowly to combat. These books then went on to explain the terrible job that these units did in stopping the Germans. Kershaw dispels some of this past history by detailing how the I&R Platoon, among others, held up the German assault for almost an entire day â€“ thus setting back the German timetable for the entire assault.
It is fascinating to read about how just 18 men stopped, no throttled, a German parachute infantry regiment (hundreds of men). The men proved to the Germans once and for all that they could stand toe-to-toe with the Germans and beat them. As Kershaw claims, this platoon and other similar small unit actions cost the Germans a major victory.
Kershaw does an excellent job in describing how the men were treated once they were captured. The first few moments of being captured are the most intense because the enemy’s adrenaline is flowing and they are angry at seeing their comrades killed and wounded â€“ thus, they are most apt to kill their prisoners. The I&R men not only survived those first few moments, but they also survived over four months of captivity. They endured sadistic guards, starvation, freezing temperatures, and bombings from Allied planes.
A final strength of the book is how Kershaw interweaves what is going on with other participants in the Battle. For example, he explains how the I&R Platoon’s fighting delayed SS Lieutenant Colonel Jochen Peiper’s column for hours and thus prohibited them from reaching their goal the Meuse River. He also discusses the American response to the German attack and how the Americans were at first thrown off-balance, but quickly recovered to see the bulge as an opportunity to cut off the Germans and end the war early.
If you are seeking a story of untold courage and perseverance in the harshest of conditions, The Longest Winter is for you.