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Ike the Warrior

December 2023
13min read


The following commentary on Eisenhower's generalship was submitted by Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall, the eminent military critic and Chief Historian on the European Theater during 1944-45 when Eisenhower was Supreme Commander.

I am disturbed that with the passing years General Eisenhower’s work and achievement as the director of Allied fighting forces in the European Theater has become no better understood by his own countrymen. In any company, to name him among the great battlefield captains is to invite skepticism. The fact is almost no one thinks of him that way. People take it for granted that his role was that of the Great Peacemaker, a veritable diplomat among generals, who needed only a ready smile and a firm handshake to resolve conflicting counsels and get governments to agree.
Yet from Operation Torch onward, his hand was directly in the design for battle—and he never knew defeat.
The plan that won Normandy was Eisenhower's own. He saw more surely than all others what had to be done, and be-cause he stood his ground, the great invasion succeeded gloriously. Who now remembers that the lesser plan, which he was charged to execute, had already won approval from the Allied heads of government and the Combined Chiefs of Staff? By insisting that the invasion front be broadened and the force strengthened, he averted disaster. We who had the task of analyzing and recapitulating the strategies and tactics of World War II in Europe saw it plain as a pikestaff that his intervention in this matter was decisive.
It was his command practice to let his subordinates reap public credit that they might follow him more loyally. How-ever generous, that tends to fuzz up history. Even the late General Walter Bedell Smith, his Chief of Staff and alter ego, did not dig to the root of that story in his book concerned with defining Eisenhower as a strategist (Eisenhower's Six Great Decisions). Alas, the historians have dug no deeper. So let us have at it.
In 1943 Eisenhower commanded in the Mediterranean. Normandy planning went on in the London headquarters of COSSAC (Chief of Staff, Supreme Allied Command) under the capable guidance of British Lieutenant General Sir Frederick E. Morgan. Sir Freddie was confident that an Allied expedition against France could defeat Hitler. But he had grave doubt of the commander designate—General Sir Alan Brooke. For many reasons, the planning already pointed toward Normandy. Sir Alan, though a doughty soldier, looked askance at that. When France was falling in 1940, he had brought the last British troops out through the Cotentin Peninsula's compartmented boscage, and the thought of going back to that maze chilled him. His gloom made Churchill no less wary.
When Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson visited England in the spring of 1943, Morgan confided his misgivings about Brooke. On returning to Washington, Stimson convinced President Roosevelt that an American must command the invasion. Stimson's own nominee was General George C. Mar-shall, but when that idea failed for various reasons, the final decision was deferred.
Eisenhower had heard nothing of this maneuvering when in September, 1943, he was visited by U.S. Major General William Chambers of the COSSAC staff who brought to Africa a copy of the invasion plan. Morgan wanted Eisenhower's reaction to it, since he was the only Allied general with recent experience in large-scale amphibious operations.
Never guessing that his own fortune was at stake, Eisenhower went over the paper with Chambers, then said, "The attack on a three-division front is fatally weak. Were this my operation, I would insist on broadening it to a five-division front with two divisions in floating reserve."
Chambers returned that warning to Morgan. But COSSAC could not alter the plan as suggested because the troop basis and the available sea-lift did not permit any such expansion.
When in December Eisenhower was advised that he would be Supreme Commander, his overriding concern became the substitution of his own five-division concept for the smaller COSSAC assault. That he was under orders to return immediately to Washington for consultation served to double his anxiety about whether there would still be time to make the essential changes. If the force was to be approximately doubled, the beachhead would have to be broadened accordingly—which meant further surveys, more mapping, fresh loading plans, the pre-empting of additional shipping from the Pacific, and so forth.
So Eisenhower called General Sir Bernard Montgomery to his, headquarters in Algiers and told him where he thought the plan was wrong. Since Monty readily agreed, he was asked to go to London at once and argue the case. "You will be right in telling them I will not yield in this matter," Eisenhower said. Then to strengthen Montgomery's hand, he sent General Smith with him as backer-up.
Monty's first port of call as messenger 'was Marrakech, since Churchill happened to be there on December 31, re-viewing the plan for Operation Overlord, code name for the big show. The Prime Minister asked Monty for a critique of the plan, and next morning the General handed him a paper outlining the new concept, all essentials of which. Eisenhower had put to Chambers four months earlier. Here is the basis for the claim that Montgomery masterminded the invasion by overhauling COSSAC's ideas of how to control the beachhead (an objective then called the lodgment).
The record says that the initial decision was made by the same man who later compelled higher authority to accept it. Monty and Smith still had not won their case by the time Eisenhower got to London. In fact, General Thomas T. Handy, speaking for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, trailed him to England, still trying to persuade him that the three-division assault front would be power enough. Eisenhower stood firm, and the opposition had either to yield or to relieve him. Of its yielding came the addition of the Utah Beach operation and the two-division U.S. airborne strike inland from it, which together proved decisive.
Let us note, however, that these were issues not in strategy but in grand tactics. The questions of where and when to strike had been settled, and no exception was taken to them. The dispute was over how to do it. Knowing exactly what he wanted to insure victory, Eisenhower energized revision of the plan. It was his design that converted the doubters and built the total confidence that was the touchstone of success.
"Beetle" Smith always felt that the greatest of Eisenhower's decisions was made at 0400 on June 5, 1944, when the Supreme Commander weighed the odds for five minutes and said, "Well, we'll go." Only three words, and the big show got under way. They were said after the chief meteorologist, Group Captain J. M. Stagg, forecast that the prohibitively rough weather, with its high winds and rough seas, would lift for only twenty-four hours. Hearing what he said, no subordinate had any advice to offer. Eisenhower had to think things through and decide all alone. He responded with the instinct of a gambler, lacking which, no battle commander may ever get off the pivot. His decision was not only morally of the highest order; it required a lightning appraisal of what could be accomplished in such a brief interval. Eisenhower, the tactician, was at his best in that moment. For as it happened, decision in the landing did become nailed down within the first twenty-four hours.
The Normandy night-drop provides another startling example of his tactical judgment. The place where the bolder five-division plan was most likely to part at the seams was right next to Utah Beach. The U.S. airborne 82nd and 101st divisions were thrown into the venture to insure the winning of the beach before the seaborne 4th Division put out its small-boat waves just before dawn. That sturdy warrior, General Omar N. Bradley, who originated this part of the plan, said that to his tactician's eye the terrain allowed for no alternative.
Then, very belatedly, Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory tried to get the night-drop canceled, saying it would result in an 80 per cent loss of machines and men. Bradley, the realist, countered: "No airborne attack, then no Utah Beach assault."
Their head-on clash put Eisenhower once more on the hot seat. Alone in his tent, he weighed the decision, then con-firmed the operation as set. It was a tactical ruling of the first order. Thousands of lives were at stake. More to the point, if Mallory was right, then the invasion was likely to fail every-where. Eisenhower simply reckoned that Mallory had badly miscalculated. So he had. The drop losses were somewhat less than 4 per cent: over-all first-day casualties were about 10 per cent. The night-drop proved to be the linchpin of the whole operation, the decisive amendment to a COSSAC plan that without it would have been marked for defeat.
Clear vision combined with tough-mindedness are also reflected in Eisenhower's decision to stay with the air plan that called for the bombing of French railway centers throughout the two months preceding D-Day. The main object was to disarrange communications that might serve a German counterattack against the beachhead. The British War Cabinet urged Eisenhower to cancel the air raids, fearing that the killing of thousands of French civilians would alienate and outrage the population. So did General Koenig, who from England was commanding the French Forces of the Interior. So here was formidable political pressure combined with a soul-trying humanitarian appeal. Ike simply would not bow to it. What came of his stand in the end? French civilian casualties were remarkably light, and the confusion dealt the German enemy was tremendous. No bombing operation during World War II paid off more handsomely.
While the several episodes that I have cited are typical of. Eisenhower's generalship, they only suggest its dimensions. One must read all of the conference papers and notes to understand the scope. Eisenhower and Smith worked together almost perfectly in tandem. Usually they saw eye to eye. Yet in argument they invariably supplemented each other, and the effect on the opposition was like a well-timed crossbuck in football.
There is a popular illusion that generalship can be measured by victory or defeat: were things that simple, Eisenhower would rate automatically as the great captain of the century. His every battle was a large affair; he knew nothing but success. No other command in history compares with his in numbers of people directed, magnitude of logistics, and duration of sustained effort. Behind it all was the "unceasing rumble of wheels, the whisperings of intriguing officials, the tumult of fears and hopes, of things growing, struggling, eluding the grasp, dissolving and then springing up again." At the center was his solitary figure.

Viscount Montgomery of Alamein commanded the British Eighth Army in North Africa in 1942 and led Allied land forces in the invasion of Europe. He served with Eisenhower until the end of the war and again in 1951 as Eisenhower's Deputy Supreme Commander at SHAPE. Here, Montgomery recalls their friendship during their service together.            
    During the last week in May, 1942, I was directing large-scale maneuvers in southeast England for the divisions under my command; it was a very tough exercise, code name Tiger, and it is remembered to this day. Two American major generals were in England at the time, studying training methods, and they asked if they might visit me to see what was going on. The two were Dwight D. Eisenhower (Director of Military Operations) and Mark Clark (Director of Military Training) —both from Army Headquarters in Washington. These two were both to play a prominent part in Hitler's war from the end of 1942 onwards, and both became my firm friends.
On 7th August, 1942, I was ordered to take command of the First British Army, which was to land in North Africa the following November under Eisenhower's supreme command. But fate intervened. At 7 A.M. the next morning, the order was canceled, and I left England on the 10th August to command the Eighth Army—then facing Rommel's army at Alamein. I next met Eisenhower on the 31st March, 1943; the Eighth Army had fought its way from Alamein to Tunisia and was now under his command. I myself was to remain under his command until the end of the German war in May, 1945. Historians will in due course evaluate Eisenhower's ability in the realm of high command in war; I can, of course, make a contribution to that investigation. But first let me tell of our friendship—how it began and developed, how it almost died in October, 1958, and how all became well in April, 1965.
Eisenhower's strength lay in his human qualities. In some extraordinary way he could instantly warm the hearts of all who came into contact with him. He had a most disarming smile, and it was impossible to become exasperated with him however much one might disagree with his opinions or actions. A simple man, he was utterly sincere in all he did. During our long wartime association he was my chief and I was his subordinate. I never really knew what he thought of me in those days, but when he came to Paris in 1951 to take command of the NATO forces, and during his eight years as President of the United States, we became close friends. I often stayed with him in the White House and in his home at Gettysburg. He was a very great gentleman, with all that that implies.
In September, 1958, I was to withdraw from employment in NATO, and in May of that year I paid a farewell visit to America. The Pilgrims of the United States gave a dinner for me in New York on the 25th May, and Eisenhower sent a telegram to be read out at the dinner: "Please give my greetings to the Pilgrims of the United States and their guests assembled in honor of Field Marshal Montgomery. . . . Across the face of the earth he has served faithfully and tirelessly in the cause of mankind. I am delighted to have another opportunity to salute my old friend and comrade in arms." I was given the telegram to keep. Few soldiers can ever have received such a tribute; it brought tears to my eyes.
During the years following the end of Hitler's war, many books were published in which writers, civilian and military, gave their views in no uncertain voice about, what went on during that war. Eisenhower was the first of the service chiefs to publish his account, in 1948; General Bradley followed in 1951. Although I came in for considerable criticism in both books, certain ungenerous statements being made, I remained silent. In October, 1958, having by then withdrawn from active employment in NATO and in the British Army, I thought it suitable to give my account of the military operations in which I had played some part, and I did so in my memoirs—where I published, with Eisenhower's written agreement, the correspondence which had passed between us during the campaign from Normandy to Berlin. His feelings were hurt; he ceased all communication with me; I was greatly distressed.
Then in April, 1965, the B.B.C. produced a television pro-gram, "Victory in Europe—Twenty Years After," in which the chief actors were to be Eisenhower and myself—he in New York and I in London—talking via the Early Bird satellite. I decided to use the occasion to try and re-establish our former friendship, and I wrote to him—saying we were both getting old, we could not go on any longer in this way, let us speak to each other over the air and become friends again. His reaction was immediate and typical of the man: he agreed at once. I am so very glad it happened before it was too late.
Let me now turn to his military ability. By the very nature of things, skill in the profession of arms has to be learnt mostly in theory by studying the science of war—since practical experience in the art does not come often to the general. The great captains have always been serious students of military history. Whether Eisenhower had studied the science of war deeply, I do not know. But both are essential in order to exercise high command successfully—study of the science by reading, and practice of the art in battle. He most certainly lacked knowledge in putting the science to practical experience in battle: he had never seen a shot fired in anger until he landed in North Africa on 8th November, 1942, as a supreme commander, and he had never commanded troops in battle before that date. This I suppose is where we differed. I had been a serious student of the science of war and had also commanded in battle every unit and formation from a platoon to great armies. A clash of opinion was almost inevitable!
My first anxieties that some difficult times lay ahead were aroused during the operations in Sicily and Italy between July and December, 1943. Eisenhower seemed to me to lack the power of decision; he was dominated too much by his staff. The Allied campaign in Italy got into a mess—no grand design, no master plan, no grip on the operations, and a first class administrative muddle.
At the end of 1943, Eisenhower was transferred to London as Supreme Commander for the invasion of Normandy in June, 1944, and for the subsequent operations which were to bring about the defeat of Germany. I was delighted to be appointed to command the land armies under him. But my anxieties were increased when he himself went off to the United States, having first ordered me to go to London on the 1st January, 1944, and work out a plan for the Normandy invasion with the naval and air commanders in chief and have it ready for him later in the month. I was, of course, delighted, but it was not my way of exercising command. I reckoned he should have made the plan himself, or at any rate have directed the planning in its initial stages.
The story of the operations in Normandy is well known. I doubt if Eisenhower really understood the master plan for the Normandy battles. He was upset when his staff and the American press complained that British progress on the eastern flank of the bridgehead in the Caen area was too slow: why did not the British break out quickly towards Paris? He wasn't upset by the unfair criticism. Indeed, he agreed with it, and in July he went so far as to complain to Winston Churchill that the British and Canadians were not doing their fair share of the fighting on the eastern flank. He never could grasp the fact that the master plan was for the Americans to break-out on the western flank. The British task was to draw the maximum German strength on to their front so that the American break-out would be possible—and this the British army group most certainly did. The slowness was an American fault; it took them a long time to get poised for the break-out battle.
The proper strategy for the Western Allies after the great victory in Normandy will be argued by historians for many years; they will find it a happy hunting ground. My views have often been expressed; they have never changed. I argued that by early August, 1944, we had drawn into battle, and defeated, south of the Seine, every German division in the west; the German air force had been shot out of the sky. We must finish off the German war by Christmas in order to ease the burden of the British people and to avoid further loss of life. To do this, we must concentrate sufficient strength to get decisive results quickly and then deliver a drive in great strength to secure bridgeheads over the Rhine and seize the Ruhr. This would entail halting a proportion of our force and diverting the necessary logistic support to the offensive punch.
Eisenhower did not agree. He said the whole allied line must advance on a broad front, from Switzerland to the North Sea, until the situation became clear. I pointed out that our logistic resources could not nourish such a movement. We would nowhere be strong enough to get decisive results quickly; the Germans would be given time to recover, and our advance would peter out; the war would go on into 1945, with all that would entail politically vis-a-vis the Russians advancing from the east; the additional loss of life would be severe.
Then, after the victory in Normandy, Eisenhower descended from the lofty perch of a supreme commander and assumed the additional burden of direct command of the land armies, a post for which he was not qualified. From that day the operations of the Western Allies began to go off the rails. We became involved in a long winter campaign during which manpower problems became serious in both British and American armies because of casualties. The German war did not end until May, 1945. The Russians got to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna before the Western Allies, with all that that was to entail for the future peace of the world—and we could have grabbed all three of those great political centers.
And so, while I had a tremendous affection and admiration for Eisenhower, and will always acclaim him as a very great human being, I find it impossible to include him among the great captains of history. But this can be said, and in no uncertain voice—nobody else could have carried the burden of Supreme Commander in the West in the way he did and kept the nations and the warring tribes of generals and air marshals working together to the end. For this alone the free world will always owe him a deep debt of gratitude.

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