America had a number of outstanding generals and admirals in both the European and Pacific Theaters in World War 2. They did an excellent job defeating the Germans who also had many outstanding Generals, themselves. Five American generals and admirals - Patton, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur, and Spruance are discussed in some detail.
But please don't get the idea that Americans won the war by themselves.
Britain contributed a number of fine generals & commanders, e.g., Montgomery, who fought like a chess master (almost driving Patton crazy in the process). The Russian generals also made major contributions even though they had to constantly deal with the suspicious and dangerous Stalin looking over their shoulder.
Unlike the "man of destiny", George Patton, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower came from poor, humble stock and went to West Point and, subsequently, the Army, to escape the poverty of Kansas as it existed at the turn of the century. Ike missed being in France in World War I but received good experience in the training duties he was assigned. After World War I, Eisenhower was fortunate to serve in the peacetime army with some top-ranked generals including Generals Fox Conner, Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and George C. Marshall. Conner and Marshall, in particular, had a great influence on Eisenhower's development and advancement in rank.
After the U.S. entered World War II, Ike moved up fast showing a tremendous ability to compromise, if necessary, and lead the various Allied factions. He led the Allies' assault on North Africa in 1942 (Operation TORCH). Later, when things got tough at Kasserine Pass under Rommel's assault, Eisenhower brought in General Patton who cleared up the problem. Ike showed great insight when he defended Patton after the soldier-slapping incident when Patton almost got sacked.
Patton may have been a son-of-a-bitch, but he was Ike's son-of-a-bitch.
Eisenhower presided over the planning for the cross-channel assault on France and managed to keep the American and British generals from fighting each other as their armies advanced through France to the final assault on Germany. Eisenhower showed great leadership skills here as he was dealing with some of the most head-strong military commanders (Patton, Montgomery, etc.) the world had ever seen. Ike held the group together and World War 2 was won. Eisenhower was a fine American.
After the war, Ike served two terms as President of the United States.
Patton early knew what he wanted to be - an American army officer and to be "great." He worked hard to achieve his goals, studying every aspect of the military, and additionally cultivating those who could help him advance in rank. Descended from George Washington and other illustrious Americans, Patton knew he could make it big time. He felt he was a "man of destiny".
After achieving some minor fame chasing Pancho Villa, Patton served in World War I and was the first American assigned (he volunteered) to the Allied tank corps in France. He learned everything he could about tanks which were then an unproven weapon. He became known throughout the military as a leading expert on tank warfare.
In World War 2, General Patton first led about two divisions of American forces in the 1942 invasion of North Africa. After Rommel defeated Allied forces at Kasserine Pass, Eisenhower put Patton in charge of the American forces in the area, and, within two weeks, Patton had Rommel's forces on the run. A little later, Patton played a key role in the conquest of Sicily but his reputation suffered when he slapped two shell-shocked American soldiers while visiting hospitals. The slapping incidents almost cost him his job but Eisenhower knew Patton's value and protected him. After D-Day, Patton's Third Army played a key role in liberating France. Patton had accomplished, in reverse, what German generals Guderian and Rommel had accomplished in 1940 with the Blitzkrieg. He also played a major role in defeating the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, which was German's last offensive gasp of the war.
In December 1945, just as he prepared to return home, Patton was injured in a car accident and died a few days later. By the time he died, Patton had accomplished the things he set out to do early in life.
General Patton was one of the greatest American generals.
Missouri-born Omar Bradley joined the military for the same reasons that Eisenhower had joined - to escape the mid-west, and for the opportunity of a career in the American military. Bradley did not have the aggressive nature or the dash of Patton. Instead, he was a steady force who helped Eisenhower hold the head-strong generals like Patton and Montgomery together. It should be noted that Bradley and Eisenhower were classmates at West Point. Their personalities were similar.
Like Eisenhower, Bradley missed serving in France during World War I, but, nevertheless, he achieved a reputation in those early years for efficiently performing duties assigned him. In the late 20's, General George Marshall selected Bradley to instruct young officers, a job he performed exceptionally well. General Marshall was very pleased and, from that time on, Marshall frequently called on Bradley for various important assignments. He soon received his first general's star (before Ike, his former classmate, received his first star.) In North Africa, Patton asked General Bradley to be his deputy as he moved to counter Rommel after the disaster at Kasserine Pass (Note: Later in France, the tables were turned, and Patton would report to Bradley).
General Bradley soon had an army of his own and took part in the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Not long after Sicily, however, General Bradley was informed that he would be the army commander of the cross-channel invasion of France and he soon transferred to Britain to prepare troops for that task. Both Eisenhower and Marshall had recommended Bradley for the assignment. Some observers felt that General Patton's slapping incident had caused him to lose the assignment but this was denied by those close to General Eisenhower and General Marshall. Both Eisenhower and Marshall knew Bradley well. Although both Eisenhower and Marshall liked the aggressiveness of Patton, they liked the calm and steadiness of Omar Bradley even more.
After the successful landings on D-Day, General Bradley commanded the 12th Army Group as the Allies moved across France toward Germany. His Army Group was the largest American force ever used in combat. Despite this, the always colorful General Patton (who now reported to General Bradley) and his Third Army got most of the press as the advance across France continued. Some even felt that Patton was the mastermind of the campaign. This was not true. General Patton was a talented American general but he didn't do it alone.
The armies of Patton and Bradley often worked in tandem together. Patton often could advance rapidly knowing that Bradley would guard his rear. Also, Bradley would often confront the Germans directly and keep them engaged, thereby giving Patton and his army the opportunity for flank attacks. Even though their armies worked well together, Patton complained in his diary about Bradley being too cautious. (Apparently, all generals besides himself were too cautious according to Patton.) Patton also resented Bradley for not helping him more in his arguments with British Field-Marshal Montgomery, another ego-maniac.
Although the press preferred the pistol-packing Patton to Bradley, Eisenhower knew the true value of Bradley. He once said, " I consider Bradley the greatest battle-line commander I have met in the war."
General MacArthur played a key role in U.S. military affairs for three decades - World War 1 to the Korean War. In World War 2, he commanded the U.S. troops in the Philippines until told by President Roosevelt to leave for Australia as the Japanese closed in. He then directed the U.S. counterattack that eventually recovered the South Pacific islands lost to Japan. MacArthur formerly accepted the Japanese surrender and was in charge of the occupying force on Japan for years. He was virtually regarded as a God by the Japanese.
When North Korea attacked South Korea, MacArthur led the UN forces and seemed to have won a great victory until the Chinese entered the war. At this time, he publicly proposed widening the war and, for that reason, was relieved of his command by President Truman who wanted to keep the war limited.
MacArthur wanted to be president but his major support was limited mainly to ultraconservatives and he failed in his attempt.
MacArthur was one of the most brilliant generals in US history. But, he was an arrogant bastard.
Spruance was criticized by some for not being aggressive enough. But, in a chess battle, as the Battle of Midway turned out to be, the brainy & cool Spruance was the perfect man for the job. At Midway, he faced the formidable and equally brainy Japanese Admiral Yamamoto who was out to knock the U.S. out of the war in one strike. In the battle, each blow by one side was met with a counter-blow by the other side. Back and forth the battle raged. Finally, in the most decisive battle in U.S. naval history, Spruance prevailed. Midway was saved.....the tide turned in the Pacific, and the U.S. went over to the offensive for the remainder of the war!
How could one even think of leaving Admiral Spruance off any list of great American generals and admirals? He was basically a nice guy but he could fight when he had to.
Next to General Patton, Field Marshal Montgomery was probably the most controversial Allied commander in World War 2. His most famous victory, undoubtedly, was El Alamein. Here, his multi-national forces stopped Rommel's supposedly invincible army. The war had been going badly for the Allies since its inception and El Alamein was the first great victory for them. In the air, of course, the Battle of Britain had been a victory (not recognized by all experts at the time), but proof was needed that the Germans could be stopped on the ground. Rommel had seemed unbeatable - now his forces were on the run! (Rommel was not at El Alamein at the time of the battle but in Germany with a medical problem.)
El Alamein is often considered the turning point of World War Two especially for the Western Front. From that point on, the Germans were on the defensive in the West. Also, General Rommel never recovered his aura of invincibility although he did manage another great (but temporary) victory at Kasserine Pass.
El Alamein was an example of the right man at the right time. The battleground was perfect for Montgomery who had studied warfare all his life and knew all the 'rules.' El Alamein was a somewhat orthodox, static battle more like chess which has a set of game rules. (Montgomery, if he had had the time, might have been a great chess player.) Later in the war, Montgomery would have some problems with fluid, fast-changing situations where the rules are thrown out, but El Alamein was his type of battle. He had control of the chess pieces and knew all the rules!
Field-Marshal Montgomery served in major positions throughout World War 2. His biggest problem was his personality. He was very egotistic and, early on, did not have much respect for the American military and tried to hog all the action for his forces. This brought him into conflict with General Patton and, to a much lesser extent, with Generals Eisenhower and Bradley. Eisenhower and Bradley, always the diplomats, minimized their differences with Montgomery. Patton had no such diplomacy and suffered from being forced to tolerate Montgomery. He had no choice. Patton knew that if he attacked Montgomery excessively, the diplomatic Eisenhower would fire him.
Another attribute of Field-Marshal Montgomery is worth noting. He had been wounded in World War I, had observed the horrible casualties of that war, and had developed an aversion to suffering unnecessary casualties. He sought to minimize casualties by his troops by always having every detail of an coming battle covered. For this, he was often criticized by the ever-aggressive Patton and certain others for being too cautious.
Marshal Dowding never achieved the position he wanted - Chief of the Air Staff. His bad fortune in that quest had its good side - he ended up playing a major role in the Battle of Britain. His early pre-RAF career in the British military was as a gunner in the artillery and he served at a number of overseas British Posts - Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Ceylon and India. In 1914, he got his flying license and began his career in the RFC and eventually the RAF.
Dowding was a loner, like many military leaders, and he did not have a huge following among the British big wigs although they recognized his competence. He was also hounded by RAF officers who wanted his job.
When Goering and the Luftwaffe struck in 1940, the RAF was ready with an excellent defense system (developed by Dowding) even though their numbers were much smaller than the attacking Luftwaffe. Dowding mixed the just-developed radar with other information systems to provide early warning for his aircraft. Thus, the British Spitfires and Hurricane fighters could maximize the time they could confront the Luftwaffe. It was a great defensive strategy but even so, he was criticized by those who felt he was too cautious and everything should be thrown at the Luftwaffe and the issue decided in great battles. But Dowding knew he had to husband the RAF's strength because they faced a much more numerous foe. He knew when to go on defense and Summer 1940 was the time for the RAF to be on defense.
Dowding had been most impressive after Dunkirk when the French were asking for more British air support. But Britain had lost hundreds of aircraft in the French campaign and in the Dunkirk evacuation. When Churchill wavered and was about to send more aircraft to the lost cause in France, Dowding stood his ground and said no more planes should be committed to France, otherwise, there would be no planes to defend England when the Germans turned their attention there. Dowding won the argument and no more aircraft were sent to the lost cause in France.
The Battle of Britain was over by November 1940, and, almost immediately, Dowding was relieved (fired) of his duties by the critical big wigs who blamed him for his defensive strategy, which, in their minds, caused the battle to go on too long. One of his subordinates who had worked hard to discredit Dowding was given Dowding's position.
At first, it was not realized that the Battle of Britain was a victory for Britain. It took years before the experts realized the magnitude of the victory and the genius of Dowdings's approach was realized and he finally received the credit he deserved.
Unlike the American and British generals who reported to the stable and trustworthy Eisenhower, the Russian generals had a special problem: they had to face the powerful German Army with its brilliant generals, e.g., Guderian, etc., while keeping an eye on their backside to make sure they had not become a target of the unpredictable Stalin or the other Communist bosses of Russia
One thing that amazed me in reviewing World War 2 on the Eastern Front, was the willingness of Stalin (and sometimes the Russian generals) to sacrifice entire armies as a gambit to the advancing Germans to ensure that a greater goal was accomplished by the Russians.
Both Marshal Zhukov (discussed here) and Marshal Konev (the best Russian general after Zhukov), were superb generals and masters of moving huge armies around the battleground. When General Patton bragged that he would have liked to be turned loose on them, he may have over-spoken a little.
The top Russian general during World War 2. A very cautious but knowledgeable man who balanced on a knifes-edge to survive the dangerous political currents prevalent in the 30's, 40's, and 50's in Russia. In that era in Russia, one misstep and you were either dead or heading for Siberia. Stalin tolerated no one that opposed him or disagreed with him or whom he did not trust or whom he disliked. Marshal Zhukov knew how to promote himself and he did not hesitate to kiss a few behinds throughout his career to survive and to get ahead.
When World War I came, Zhukov served only as a private in the Russian Army, but his skill in making important friends and using their influence paid off and he was given opportunities to study strategy and tactics. He came out of World War I well-educated in the art and science of warfare. It should also be noted that he saw combat and served with distinction.
Following World War I, Zhukov rapidly rose through the ranks and became a squadron commander in the early 20's. He also joined the Communist Party. In the 30's, when Stalin went virtually mad and began his great purges of the military, Zhukov proved he would do anything to survive including mouthing the Communist Party line no matter how it changed and, allegedly, ratting out fellow officers to gain prestige with Stalin's "big boys."
When the border war with Japan broke out in the late 30's, Zhukov led the counteroffensive that defeated the very strong Japanese Army. His reputation was now made. In the Japanese war, he served with the great Russian general, Timoshenko, and greatly advanced his knowledge of military tactics. This Asian victory deflected Japan's interest away from Russia and toward the south and may have saved Russia from a possible decisive "stab in the back" by the Japanese in the Second World War.
When the Russo-Finnish War and, finally, World War 2 came, Zhukov continued to distinguish himself. He took over defense of Leningrad and led the great offensive in December 1941 toward the besieged Moscow thereby putting the Germans into retreat mode.
In 1942, at Stalingrad, Zhukov, a cautious general, did not at first see the opportunity to deal a major blow to the Germans but, when he did, he helped plan the great counteroffensive that won the city for the Russians. Zhukov then played a major role in pushing the German Army out of Russia and then, goaded by Stalin to be more aggressive, led the final brutal assault on Berlin, capturing the German capital thereby beating his Russian rival, Marshal Konev, to the punch. (In the war, Stalin often played off Zhukov against Konev to gain advantages.)
World War 2 in Europe was over.
After the war, Zhukov's political instincts failed him for awhile and he was charged by, first Stalin, and then the dangerous Lavrentii Beria of various sins and crimes (including the charge of treason by Beria). Somehow he survived and when Krushchev took over after Stalin's death, Zhukov reemerged as a pal of Khrushchev who eventually turned on him and fired him. Zhukov's career was over.
By Russian standards, it was a long and successful career.
We are constantly comparing the generals of the countries participating in World War 2 and it is a little unfair since some, notable the Russian generals, had to work with big brother looking over their shoulder. While a misstep by Russian general could cost them their head, the same mistake by an American, British, or German general might mean they would get fired but they would be allowed to continue living.
The most frequent question is who was the best general - Patton or Rommel. But Rommel was not Germany's best general. That honor should probably go to Guderian, the German panzer general. I think Guderian may have the edge on Patton in tactical warfare knowledge but he was even more egotistic and head-strong than Patton and, on that basis, Patton would have the edge. At least Patton didn't cost us the war as Guderian's heroics might have cost the Germans.
Eisenhower was a different type general......actually, he was more of a great manager and organizer than an expert in warfare. When all that is considered, Ike might have been the greatest general of World War 2. (Eisenhower thought the mild-natured Omar Bradley was the finest battlefield commander!)
But, in all this talk of "who is the greatest general?", don't forget Zhukov. When he had a goal, Zhukov would not be denied until he had achieved the goal. In the battle for Berlin, it has been alleged that Zhukov, to expedite the capture of the city, ordered his own front lines to be shelled along with the adjacent German forces. Zhukov was being goaded by Stalin to move more aggressively and Zhukov did so.
How would you like to face a general that didn't mind killing his own troops?
Zhukov might have beaten any of the other generals in combat just because he was so relentless.
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American generals played a major role in defeating Germany in World War 2. Especially effective were Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, and MacArthur plus Admiral Spruance who were the leading American Generals and Admirals.