The Northwest European Theatre: General Eisenhower II

Senior Allied commanders celebrate at Rheims shortly after General Eisenhower had addressed the German mission who had just signed the unconditional surrender document. Present are (left to right): General Ivan Susloparov (Soviet Union), Lieutenant General Frederick E. Morgan (British Army), Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith (US Army), Captain Kay Summersby (US Army) (obscured), Captain Harry C. Butcher (US Navy), General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower (US Army), Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder (Royal Air Force).

Eisenhower had an aim: to destroy the enemy west of the Rhine. But he neglected the harder part of strategic decision making—choosing what not to do. Nor did he explain how or where his aim was to be accomplished, confining himself to directions of advance and geographic objectives. There was no master plan other than a general desire to advance on all axes at the same time and somehow, somewhere destroy the German army. There was no single, developed concept under which both (later three) army groups worked synergistically to achieve an operationally significant result. In consequence, there was no meaningful prioritization of operations. Despite the centralization of command in his hands, operations became increasingly decentralized and fragmented as personalities, pride, politics, and doctrinal differences hampered their efficient development. This lacuna seemed to stem from a lack of foresight and flexibility in the operational sphere and a reluctance to make hard choices that might antagonize important people, in anticipation of problems to come. The result was a tendency toward opportunism and improvisation as the campaign progressed. Eisenhower was inclined to switcher between courses of action, despite the advice of his clear-sighted chief of staff, Major General Bedell Smith. This led to an ever-changing emphasis in the stream of directives emanating from SHAEF and contradictory statements made to Marshall and to each of the army group commanders. Lack of consistency caused a dissipation of effort at a time when limited logistic resources demanded that objectives be limited as well, or at least that their achievement be sequenced in order of importance, with the lesser ones being tackled as and when resources allowed. As a result, there was no economy of effort in the secondary sector to achieve something decisive in the direction of the main effort, and the Allied offensive culminated short of achieving anything of critical importance anywhere.

In his role as commander of land forces, a mantle he had assumed under pressure from the top of the US military and political hierarchy, Eisenhower did not display great skill in applying the principles of operational art in the unusual circumstances of post-Normandy operations. The situation called for more foresight, judgment, decisiveness, and boldness in decision making than he could muster under the enormous pressure of events and responsibilities and a lack of time for reflection. Eisenhower was also the theatre Supreme Commander, and in this role he was much more successful, a fact recognized by even his detractors. However, the very skills that made him effective in this position—political rather than military—were those that contributed significantly to his uninspired operational leadership.

Eisenhower’s primary responsibility in his more important job was to keep the military side of the Anglo-American alliance together and working in harmony toward a common aim through a mutually agreed (or at least accepted) operational-strategic concept. He had been chosen for the top job because of his political skill as an alliance manager. This was a task beset by extraordinary difficulties. He had to satisfy the US government, Marshall, and the British. These elements were pulling in divergent strategic directions, and the British obstinately refused to recognize that they were now junior partners to an increasingly self-confident United States. Within his theatre, he had to keep together an Allied team that was increasingly sundered by doctrinal differences, mutual incomprehension, nationalistic prejudices, and consequent dislike and distrust. Virtually all the characters he had to deal with had strong opinions, wills, and self-belief; they were competitive with one another, and many of them had inflated egos. Most of them, both Americans and British, believed that they knew better than their boss and that Eisenhower was favoring or even kowtowing to their rivals. The job of Supreme Commander required more than a soldier who knew the purely military-technical aspects of soldiering; it needed a consummate politician who also understood operations.

Brooke’s “main impression” of Eisenhower was that of “a swinger and no real director of thought, plans, energy or direction! Just a coordinator—a good mixer, a champion of inter-allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him. But is that enough? Or can we not find all qualities of a commander in one man? . . . I doubt it.”66 Brooke’s answer to his own rhetorical question was correct, and no other country, much less an alliance, had found such a paragon—at least not in modern times. Later, when the strains of the campaign were beginning to tell, Brooke amplified the thought:

There is no doubt that Ike is all out to do all he can to maintain the best of relations between British and Americans, but it is equally clear that Ike knows nothing about strategy and is quite unsuited to the post of Supreme Commander as far as running the strategy of the war is concerned! . . . With the Supreme Command set up as it is no wonder that Monty’s real high ability is not always realized. Especially when “national” spectacles pervert the perspective of the strategic landscape.

Unwittingly, of course, Brooke’s last sentence revealed his bias. If someone disagreed with him and Montgomery, they were, by definition, wrong and revealed their inadequacies in doing so. To him, national viewpoints were valid only if they were British.

Talking to a war correspondent and historian after the war, Montgomery complained:

The trouble was that Eisenhower did not know what he should do. He had no experience and no philosophy of battle by which to judge the rival plans. His method was to talk to everyone and then try to work out a compromise solution which would please everyone. He had no plan of his own. He was a sociable chap who liked talking, and he used to go from one HQ to another finding out what his various subordinates thought, instead of going to them and saying—here is the plan, you will do this, and so and so will do that. Eisenhower had conferences to collect ideas; I had conferences to issue orders.

There is some foundation for these criticisms, but they also demonstrate how little Montgomery understood about the highest levels of command and how unsuited he was to fill them. Making one’s allies feel valued and being prepared to compromise with them is part and parcel of alliance operations. The commander who ignores this elementary fact of coalition life not only will fail to secure their willing cooperation but also may unconsciously goad them into sabotaging his plans—as Montgomery had done with his high-handed treatment of Patton and Bradley in Sicily the year before.

From the start, Eisenhower knew he had to be much more a statesman than a straightforward issuer of arbitrary orders. His position was more akin to that of the chairman of an increasingly fractious board than a military autocrat. He wanted to—indeed, needed to—command through persuasion, consensus, and, when necessary to maintain harmony, through compromise. This was, he realized, the only way to keep the alliance working together:

No written agreement for the establishment of an Allied Command can hold up against nationalistic considerations. . . . Every commander in the field possesses direct disciplinary power over all subordinates of his own nationality . . .; any disobedience or other offence is punishable. . . . But such authority and power cannot be given by any country to an individual of another nation. Only trust and confidence can establish the authority of an Allied commander-in-chief so firmly that he need never fear the absence of this legal power.

If necessary, Eisenhower could compel obedience from unwilling American generals, as long as he was sure of Marshall’s backing. But Montgomery was not just another army group commander. As the foremost British field commander and the principal champion of British views on operational-strategic issues, and given his intimate relations with the CIGS and the War Office and his massive popularity and prestige in the United Kingdom, he could not simply be ordered about. National considerations were as real a limit on Eisenhower’s freedom of action as they had been for Montgomery when he contemplated getting rid of Crerar.

This role as coordinator, coaxer, and arbiter became increasingly difficult as national differences and personal rivalries and prejudices intensified at the top, to the detriment of military priorities. The temptation to challenge, selectively interpret, or simply ignore the wishes of the Supreme Commander grew with the feeling that the war was all but won and that glory (and the chance for promotion) had to be seized before it was too late and competitors hogged it all. Faced with these divisive tendencies, Eisenhower found that his style of command proved less and less effective. Careful qualifications, circumlocution, and tactful wording in directives were taken as signs of weakness, and their recipients searched for get-out phrases that would enable them to follow their own pet schemes in conscious (if unadmitted) disregard for their commander’s intent. The more mutable and open to compromise and interpretation these directives were, the more they became the subject of debate and negotiation and the less force they carried. The problem was exacerbated by Eisenhower’s tendency to equivocate and delay decisions in the hope of avoiding stark choices. Though sometimes an appropriate response, this was injurious at a time when speed and decisiveness were paramount. Of course, had the keenly anticipated German collapse actually happened, his methods would not have been questioned. In the event, the campaign lost its coherence as army groups and armies increasingly followed their own inclinations, to the detriment of both focus and synergy. In the end, the initiative was lost, and with it the opportunity to achieve an early end to the war.

Eisenhower’s approach to the Supreme Command was correct in its essence, but he permitted his subordinates too much leeway and wound up losing considerable authority and control. Whether through his strong desire to be liked, his natural predisposition to compromise and avoid confrontation, his inexperience, or his sheer unfamiliarity with operational art, he failed to assert himself sufficiently in exercising command of the land forces. It was a slippery slope from liberty to license, and he allowed his senior commanders to slide too far down that slope before recognizing the error. The estimable Bedell Smith, watching the erosion of SHAEF’s credibility, observed: “The trouble with Ike, instead of giving direct and clear orders, [he] dresses them up in polite language; and that is why our senior American commanders take advantage.” Montgomery, who needed to be kept on a much tighter rein, did likewise. When clear, unambiguous decisions had to be made and adhered to, even if unpopular in some quarters, Eisenhower delayed or equivocated. He need not have done so. He had the authority, underpinned by Marshall, to keep Bradley and Patton in line. On issues he deemed of fundamental importance, he could have gripped Montgomery and told him the period for discussion was over, and the time for implementation without dissent had come. On the occasions when he actually did so, Montgomery obeyed like the good, disciplined soldier he was. Of course, the longer Eisenhower let things slide, the more difficult it became to convince his subordinates that he was serious.

Eisenhower’s main problems were linked. One was the lack of a well-thought-out plan to accomplish the aim: destruction of the enemy’s forces. Absent this, the concept of operations became too generalized and, critically, mutable; without a clear idea of how the armies should act synergistically to achieve the desired end, it was difficult to see how each development in the campaign should be turned to the Allies’ advantage. Foresight is difficult if the direction of travel is ill defined. Improvisation is necessary in the conduct of any operation, but it is unsatisfactory as the sole method. If actions are not set in context, there is danger of losing direction, fragmenting efforts, and reacting to rather than shaping events—the very problems that beset the Allies as September gave way to October. Eisenhower’s difficulties were exacerbated by his lack of decisiveness. As Brooke observed in his diary, the strictly military requirements of Supreme Command are incompatible with the political. A politician, in most circumstances, finds that temporizing and compromise are prime virtues. When these are exercised in the context of command in fast-developing operations, they are likely to result in drift. Eisenhower saw his most important endeavor as keeping the alliance working synergistically toward the common end. The fact that it was not functioning harmoniously was not his fault, as he strove to preserve amity or, failing that, at least understanding.

Several factors combined to undermine Eisenhower’s prospects of success. In taking on both Supreme Command and land command (in which he had no choice), he overextended himself. The multifarious tasks involved were all important to someone of consequence, even if they were sometimes tangential to victory. The enormous pressures allowed the Supreme Commander little time for the quiet reflection that is essential to judgment and creativity. For the critical period in September, he was semi-incommunicado. The base at Granville, which his HQ occupied for the first fortnight, was remote and poorly served by its communications; this was followed by the disruption of the weeklong move to Versailles. Eisenhower found it difficult to keep his finger on the pulse of operations, and his lack of practical command experience exacerbated the problem. This made it easier for his principal subordinates to deceive him about their implementation of his directives and their logistic states. Such behavior was symptomatic of the worst of his problems: the attitude of his army group commanders. Of his experience in Tunisia, Eisenhower wrote later:

It is easy to minimize the obstacles that always obstruct progress in developing efficient command mechanisms for large allied forces. Some are easy to recognize, such as those relating to differences in equipment, training and tactical doctrine, staff procedures and methods of organization. But these are overshadowed by national prides and prejudices. In modern war, with its great facilities for quickly informing populations of battlefield developments, every little difference is magnified . . . but success in allied ventures can be achieved if the chief figures in the government and in the field see the necessities of the situation and refuse to violate the basic principle of unity, either in public or in the confidence of the personal contacts with subordinates and staffs. Immediate and continuous loyalty to the concept of unity and to allied commanders is basic to victory.

Neither Montgomery nor Bradley showed him much loyalty. They ignored the spirit of his directives, and occasionally the letter. They undermined his authority with their disparaging comments to their staffs and army commanders. Their mutual lack of understanding, born of personal and national rivalries, was inimical to cooperation. Eisenhower wanted a good working relationship with his subordinates, but however hard he worked for it, however much he sought compromises to achieve it, he could not overcome the corrosive and ultimately campaign-destructive animus between his principal lieutenants. Ultimately, his endless patience, tact, and compromise preserved only a veneer of united effort and a merely generalized sense of common purpose.

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