I received a review copy of Doug Nash's new work, and I've been highly impressed by it. Here's my thoughts on the matter:
In the English language literature on the December 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes, the so-called “Battle of the Bulge,” it is often stated that the American 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions had been “bled white in the Hürtgen Forest fighting” in the autumn of 1944, and were then assigned to the quiet Ardennes sector for rebuilding. I had long wondered at how the scratch, makeshift German defenses on the Western Front, after heavy losses in the Normandy campaign, were able to inflict such casualties on their opponent. An answer to this question is now available in the form of Douglas Nash’s new book “Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp: With the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division From the Hürtgen Forest to the Heart of the Reich.”
Nash already has a solid reputation as the author of “Hell’s Gate,” a book about the early 1944 Cherkassy campaign. Indeed, that work is referenced on the cover of his new release. As in the earlier title, Nash successfully combines thorough research with a fluid, entertaining style of writing. The success of both books is their way of presenting detailed information in a readable style that brings out the human element in modern industrialized war.
“Victory…” provides an analysis of the entirety of the late war German Volksgrenadier experiment. The idea behind creating such divisions is examined, as is the manner in which these units were brought into being, including a look at how the reality differed from what was expected by the German high command and Allied intelligence. The focus then narrows to the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division, with it serving as a detailed example of how a typical Volksgrenadier division went through its organization and training. The focus is further narrowed by placing the overall service of the division in the context of the career of one special company within it. That formation, Fusilier Kompanie 272, was intended as an elite mobile reserve for the division, and the survival of a cache of detailed wartime documents from that company was the germ of Nash’s research for this book.
The bulk of “Victory…” covers the frontline service of the 272nd Volksgrenadier Division from its commitment in November 1944, through its dissolution during April 1945. As mentioned, the focus is on the activities of Fusilier Kompanie 272, but the actions of the rest of the division are examined too, albeit in less detail. The picture presented is one of well-intentioned soldiers, who never had quite enough resources or firepower to achieve more than local success, but who gave their best repeatedly, in an already lost cause. Eventually, constant casualties and the hopelessness of Germany’s situation wore the division down to the point that the survivors had nothing more to give.
Nash interviewed many surviving veterans of the 272nd, and had access to wartime letters, along with the documents mentioned above. Together, these show the men of the division as fighting for their country, and for each other, far more than for the political leadership of that time. This book is one of the few to provide such a look at the late war German military on the Western Front. Over the past 20-plus years, many works have been written in English, or been translated into it, which cover a similar timeline on the Eastern Front. There, much of the German military was determined to fight to the death, with some not considering surrender an option. The 272nd Volksgrenadier Division faced American opponents, and its war was marginally more humane than that fought on the Eastern Front. Still, over the course of several hundred pages, the constant casualties and defeats make for depressing reading, and provide a stark reminder of the horrors of war. This is even true for the victors, because on several occasions the 272nd took an awful toll of their opponents, something Nash verified through extensive use of American sources (veteran interviews, unit histories, and wartime reports).
“Victory…” is well supported with maps, photos (especially of personalities), footnotes, and useful appendices. One need not know much about World War 2 to comprehend the book, but those who are students of that conflict are likely to learn a great deal that is new to them. There are many works currently available that present the history of elite Waffen-SS Panzer Divisions. It is a refreshing contrast to see how a rather ordinary German Army infantry division experienced the last six months of the war. As such, “Victory Was Beyond Their Grasp” is a welcome and much-needed study of a neglected aspect of the World War 2 German Military.