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The Calculated Risk

The Calculated Risk

No one succeeds in everything they undertake, so in that sense, we are all failures. Every day in all walks of life, people engage in calculated risks. Those that are successful do not fail, or to put it in another way, those that fail are not successful.
Theory and opinion: how easily we deceive ourselves into seeing something that is not there. The more that we hunt them, the faster they run, and when they stand still we do not notice them and rush on by. Theory and opinion have always been enemies. If we commit all of our resources to one or the other, then we cross over the border between wisdom and folly.
Commanders are at the heart of warfare because it is their decisions that shape the events of warfare. It is their judgments that dictate the flow of action and foreshadows the future. A commander is the source of authority and a repository of responsibilities. He has the power of what takes place and compel obedience to his wishes. No one else can issue orders except in his name. To him alone belongs the credit or blame for whatever results from the exertions and endeavors of subordinate commanders. Staff officers may recommend, but it is the commander alone who decides. And what holds this whole military structure together is discipline, which is the buttress and it enhances the omnipotence of command. Permeating a well-functioning organization are mutual trust and confidence.
Decisive results in any war re-obtained only by offensive action wherein the commander can exercise his initiative and impose his will upon the enemy. The will to win is the essence of the spirit of the offensive and it is a source of strength for the attackers. Offensive operations are undertaken to carry the fight to the enemy.
The fighting had been of the dirtiest kind. Infantry losses were high, especially in the rifle platoons. Not all of the casualties were due to enemy action. Cases of frostbite, trench foot and respiratory problems had taken their toll. Because of this depletion of infantry strength, divisions in action were quickly exhausted and had to be rested. Without enough troops to do the jobs required while maintaining strong enough concentrations for successful attacks, offensive strength fell off markedly. When newly travelled infantrymen were rushed from the United States they had to be put on the line at once without time to become bloodied.
Throughout late November and early December the thinly stretched condition of the rifle troops was a constant concern. In order to maintain an attack status in the vicinity of the Roer dams in the north and in the region of the Saar to the south, the static front in the Ardennes had to be weakened. It was concluded that a definite risk was being taken in this vicinity but it was felt that it would be a grave mistake to suspend operations elsewhere to sit and wait for replacements from the United States just to make it safe everywhere.
Surprise is a much sought after commodity in warfare. However, surprise achieves only local initial success due to what von Clausewitz has labeled the diminishing power of the offensive. To achieve surprise, one must engage in deception. Deception is the oldest tactic in the book. Deception is not a lie-actually, it is more of a ruse tended to mislead. Deception can be a spokes word, an act, or both.
A look at a map indicated that if Hitler were to attempt a serious counterattack, due to our concentrations to the north of, and to the south of the only place available was in the Ardennes. Before a calculated risk can be undertaken, anticipation and reaction must be considered. While surprise is obtained through deception, of the anticipation is reasonable and the reaction swift, then von Clausewitz was correct in his assessment of the diminishing power of the offensive.
The anticipation was that if Hitler were to launch such an attack, due to our concentrations, to the north and to the south of the Ardennes we were in a strong position to concentrate against the flank of any such attempt. Two other things that must be considered in anticipation are weather and ground, or terrain. A competent commander must always consider the ground over which he attacks because it is the ground that determines how he will supply large concentrations. By anticipation, we did not place large concentrations of supplies in the path of the anticipated offensive. Because of the ground in the Ardennes, the massive weight of the Tiger tank was its own worst enemy. But because war is nothing if it is not two sided it is not wise to assume that the enemy will do everything that you expect him to.
The Bulge was really a salient. A salient can have mixed blessings. Although it offers an opportunity for future forward thrusts, all those inside the salient are subject to bombing and shelling. And worst of all, a salient had two long and very vulnerable flanks. If it is possible for one to penetrate deeply into these exposed flanks, the troops inside the salient are in danger of being cut off and isolated. An advancing Army is particularly vulnerable on its flanks. Strong and brisk attacks at the flanks can cause considerable dislocation and check the entire forward momentum of the attack.
A fighting withdrawal is difficult maneuver but can be effective in blunting the main thrust at the front of the salient and possibly divert it from its primary objectives. In so doing, it allows the defender time to bring up reinforcements and thus be able to alter the tactical situation. There is nothing more productive in producing casualties in a battle than an acquired symbolic important in excess of its tactical or strategic value.
However, military doctrine still insists that lost ground should be retaken as soon as possible. Today, we hear that every failure is a breakdown in intelligence or communications. The failure of information to not reach the top is not untypical. Timely intelligence is a major factor in frustrating an adversary. The acquisition of timely, reliable and accurate intelligence of timely, reliable and accurate intelligence can provide the basis for planning and executing operations, against an enemy. However, each item of information that is obtained must be evaluated for its pertinence, reliability and accuracy. Prior knowledge of an enemy’s plans permits the development of adequate counter measures.
When the attacks against the Roer dams had to be called off, the Sixth Panzer Army was lost and could not be located by any available means. At this same time intelligence began reporting a growing anxiety about the weak Ardennes front where it was known that the enemy was increasing his infantry strength. This type of report is common. If a commander takes counsel of all the gloomy intelligence estimates that he receives, he would never win a battle. He would be sitting on his duff waiting fearfully for the predicted catastrophe. There are reasons when a commander often finds it expedient to take his G-2’s assessments with a grain of salt.
It was felt immediately that the December 16th attack was more than just a spoiling attack, unless it was a feint. But if it were a feint, then there had to be major military objectives elsewhere. But it had been anticipated that there was nowhere else along the entire front that he could attack except in the Ardennes.
Now the swift reaction began to unfold. It was agreed that 12th Army group should begin to shift increased strength toward both flanks of the Ardennes salient. If the calculations as to the German intentions proved correct, then the calculated risk taken would be justified by our ability to react swiftly.
Intelligence is a very fickle, very tricky, very complicated and very complex affair. First it should be remembered the sheer plethora of intelligence that was received from all along the front. We had no reason not to believe that the Germans could not, or would not, resort to subterfuge. Ultra’s intercepts were not so numerous because Hitler had resorted to the use of land lines. Intelligence can be used to create deception and for surprise or intelligence can be used to counter exception and/or surprise. Relevant information has to be separated into its timeliness, its reliability and its accuracy. The relevant must be separated from the irreverent. Then that relevant information must be separated again into what is relevant. Then that information must be separated again. Even timely, reliable and accurate information had a short spanned “shelf” life. Then what might prove valuable later has to be stored away.
After all of this information is sorted out, an assessment is made of, and as to, the enemy’s strength, capabilities, and possible offensive and defensive actions. Based on the liveliness, reliability and accuracy of that information. What that assessment indicates as to the enemy’s capabilities and intentions is what a commander uses to assist him in his decisions, often which can involve a calculated risk.
The strain placed upon everyone was, to say the least, tremendous, due to the commitments of our own offensive strategy. There is no doubt that the Germans managed some spectacular gains early on, but it was calculated that there being no military objectives in the Ardennes at first it pointed to two—the Meuse River and Liege. Advances of such magnitude can be disturbing to any army but in war, one must never forget those capricious gods of Chance and Blunder. Suppose Hitler, had miscalculated and the skies had cleared on the 20th or the 21st or both.
Each intelligence officer makes his own assessment with the information that he has on hand, but there is little, if any, support to the contention that command was adequately forewarned of impending danger because there is no one, not even intelligence, that can be couched in absolute terms. There are always numerous courses or paths open to the enemy and these are seldom positive indications as to which course or path he will pursue. Intelligence can only make assessments in terms of relative probabilities and sometimes at possibilities.
Regardless of what some history buffs and as much as generals wish to believe, war can never be tested ahead of time. For anyone to think that they might penetrate the mysteries of war ahead of time is merely caught up in a persistent illusion.
Intelligence allows one to speculate as to an enemy’s intent. That intent is speculation on his capabilities.
Sherlock Holmes was of the belief that if one took all of the possibilities and all of the probabilities, what was left was probably what would or could happen.
Assume that command had been forewarned on the 15th. What could command have done to deny the Germans their initial successes, what every one’s feelings may be about the cause of the Battle of the Bulge due to hindsight, it proved to be Hitler’s death knell and, at the time, it was justifiable to empty a calculated risk.
In his book, Crusade in Europe, on page 140, Eisenhower states, quote, “The responsibility for maintaining only four divisions on the Ardennes front and for running the risk of a large German penetration in that area was mine.”
And finally, the one major item most seem to forget is that in our drive across France, we had the help of the FBI, and the French civilian populace. Their intelligence was almost always timely, reliable, and accurate. The closer we got to the German border the more suspect became information from questionable sources. Hitler had gone to the use of the land line. The weather negotiated air recognizance. What was left was a suspect underground, a suspect civilian population and prisoners of war who some didn’t even know as much as we did. Had we had timely, reliable and accurate information it is possible that the German salient might never have existed. And by the Germans coming out spoiling for a fight was what we needed. When the weather was clear, take note of what our air power and our artillery were able to accomplish. Think how much worse it could have been if we had had to go in and root him out. In the big picture, it was justified to take the calculated risk. We didn’t have to go looking for the Germans; he came out where we could see him.
Case in point: There are stories that a little Belgium girl with red ribbons in her hair pointed out Americans to Germans. There are stories of a woman who had information on the German build-up. It doesn’t seem likely that the Germans could have allowed this woman to move about freely. And it cannot even by agreed upon whether she was German or Belgium.
It should be kept in mind that this front was 75-80 miles long. The attacker knows where and when he will strike. To have been able to pinpoint the exact location and time and day of the attack would have been asking for quite a bit considering Hitler’s policy of secrecy. Even so the Germans could have been lying. Suppose they had attacked5-10 miles further north. Suppose they had attacked 20-25 miles further south.
This might be a good example of why history is capable of always providing something new to be learned because of speculation is the secret vice of every history buff. In any case, it seems to be unavoidable when passing judgments.
Source: Bulge Bugle, February 2003


"B" Company
51st Armored Infantry Bn
4th Armored Division
Battle of the Bulge