US Army 1944: Leaders of Skill and Character

Brig. Gen. Bruce Clark led the spirited American defense of St. Vith.

The situation at the beginning of the Battle of the Bulge was a daunting one for American forces along the thinly manned line in the rugged Ardennes region. Having achieved total surprise at the strategic and tactical levels, the Germans attacked the 80-mile sector with a 2.5:1 initial advantage in assault infantry, a 4:1 edge in tanks, and a 4.7:1 superiority in artillery. That the battered American line bent—or, more appropriately, “bulged”—but did not break is at combat’s most basic level a tribute to the courage, tenacity, and sacrifice of the individual GIs who chose to stand and fight against such seemingly overwhelming odds. Yet, the leadership actions of American senior commanders—the “generals of the Bulge”—ultimately determined whether the GIs’ sacrifice in the U.S. Army’s greatest battle would yield victory or defeat.

The Battle of the Bulge, therefore, put American leaders at all levels to the test in what was, in effect, the greatest “leadership laboratory” of the war in Northwest Europe. Evaluating how American senior leaders met that challenge—their successes as well as their failures—reveals not only their level of skill at battle command but, importantly, their strength of character.

Further, simply pointing out the successes and failures of American battle leadership in this watershed battle begs an overall assessment. Historian Forrest Pogue said, “You never get it absolutely right. History is always escaping us.” Yet, “history” also demands an attempt at a comprehensive accounting and a fair appraisal of the performance of American senior leadership in the Battle of the Bulge.

SUCCESS OR FAILURE?

The shortest and simplest answer to the question of how American senior leaders performed in the Ardennes fighting is perhaps best summed up by a quote from historian Martin Blumenson’s reflective essay on Eisenhower and his top lieutenants: “Success on the battlefield speaks for itself.” That is, because the ultimate test of the effectiveness of combat leadership is battlefield victory, American commanders in the Ardennes should therefore be judged successful leaders. However, such a simplistic answer not only ignores the failures of senior commanders before and during the battle, it also slights the truly outstanding successes of those individual leaders whose command decisions proved vital in achieving, as Charles B. MacDonald characterized it, “the greatest single victory in U.S. history.”

Certainly, failures in American leadership led to a situation that permitted Hitler to organize and launch his great offensive against a sector of the line so weakened that German battlefield success seemed highly probable. This leadership failure and the resulting German strategic surprise were later compounded by the inability of the Allies to launch a timely, coordinated counteroffensive that could have trapped and destroyed the bulk of German troops in the bulge. Both of these leadership failures represented serious lapses in battle command on the Allied, principally American, side of the battle line. To these two failures at the strategic level must be added the biggest leadership failure of the battle at the tactical level—the mass surrender of two regiments of the 106th Infantry Division.

Examining the actual conduct of the battle once the German attack began, however, yields an overwhelmingly positive assessment of how American battle leadership fought that campaign. Although American senior commanders were responsible for the one-sided conditions in the Ardennes through their actions in the months preceding the attack, they nevertheless responded to the assault in a timely fashion with solid, effective, competent leadership that proved successful in gaining control of the battle and winning it. Their actions at the operational and tactical level combined to overcome the strategic blunders and turn a potentially disastrous situation to the Allies’ favor.

Eisenhower may have invited the German riposte in the first place with his insistence on a general Allied offensive advancing along multiple axes that left the Ardennes thinly manned, but he largely redeemed the situation by reacting to counter quickly, then defeat, the German attack. Similarly, Bradley’s egregious failure to exert aggressive, positive command of his army group from the very beginning of the battle was effectively offset by Eisenhower’s unusually active role in the actual conduct of the fighting. For once forsaking his habitual hands-off approach to the exercise of battle command, Ike intervened early and appropriately to create the conditions leading to the defeat of the German offensive. Moreover, Bradley’s “intransigence in failing to move his headquarters” to a position from which he could exercise firm and effective control of the fast-moving battle prompted Eisenhower’s most morally courageous decision of the war—giving British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery command of all U.S. forces in the northern half of the bulge. A “team player” throughout his career, Ike again demonstrated this defining characteristic at a critical moment in the battle by placing the good of the Allied coalition ahead of national pride or any personal animosity he felt toward the abrasive British field marshal. By doing so, Eisenhower clearly proved that he was an Allied commander, not merely an American one—even though his action effectively relieved of command his longtime friend and West Point classmate, Bradley.

Although Bradley vehemently decried Ike’s decision to give Montgomery command of two-thirds of Bradley’s 12th Army Group—calling it Eisenhower’s “worst possible mistake”—the chaotic tactical situation and Bradley’s (and First Army commander Courtney Hodges’s) own failures made the command change the course of action most likely to accomplish Ike’s intent of regaining control of the battlefield and then trapping the bulk of German forces in the Ardennes. That Eisenhower’s plan—clearly outlined to his senior subordinates at the 19 December 1944 meeting in Verdun—failed to cut off and destroy most enemy troops in the Ardennes was due more to the inherent nature of coalition command than to any egregious leadership failure on Ike’s part. Like politics, coalition command is “the art of the possible,” relying on building consensus rather than merely issuing orders. Eisenhower did all that seems reasonably possible as a coalition commander to achieve his goal of trapping the Germans: Ike told the British field marshal his commander’s intent—and impatiently reminded Montgomery several times over subsequent days; he gave Montgomery command of the forces sufficient to accomplish that objective; and Ike quickly set in motion Patton’s counterattack as the southern pincer in his planned envelopment. In short, Eisenhower had given Montgomery all the tools the British field marshal needed to launch a timely attack from the north. However, as leader of an allied coalition Ike lacked any practical means of forcing Montgomery to promptly obey. Eisenhower could—and did—attempt to motivate Montgomery into launching a timely attack from the north, but he could not compel the British commander to do so as he could his American subordinates.

Yet, even though Ike failed to motivate Montgomery to launch a more timely counterattack on the north of the bulge that in conjunction with Patton’s thrust in the south might have cut off and annihilated nearly all enemy forces, the 100,000 (or more) precious combat troops, hundreds of panzers, and last major reserves of war materiel the Germans lost in the battle were, nonetheless, unavailable to confront Ike’s armies—and Stalin’s massive forces in the East—during the subsequent battles for Germany.

And, at the operational level, Patton’s aggressive development and execution of the American counterstroke from the south more than made up for Bradley’s lack of a firm hand at the helm of 12th Army Group. Patton really didn’t need Bradley’s help anyway.

It was Patton again, along with his West Point classmate, William H. Simpson, and some outstanding subordinate commanders at the corps, division, and regimental levels who created battlefield success when Hodges’s failures and bad decisions threatened to doom First Army. With Simpson rapidly flooding First Army area with reinforcements, Patton striking swiftly to relieve Bastogne, and solid subordinate commanders like Middleton, Gerow, Hasbrouck, Cota, Barton, Fuller, and Clarke stubbornly frustrating every enemy move, Hodges’s army not only survived, it ultimately triumphed, despite the First Army commander’s poor leadership.

Mistakes of leadership and command at the tactical level, including the horrendous disaster that befell the 106th Infantry Division, also tended to be redeemed by the successes of American battle leadership in the Ardennes. Even though Middleton and Jones failed to save the 422nd and 423rd Infantry Regiments of Jones’s 106th Division from encirclement and surrender on the Schnee Eifel in front of St.-Vith, Clarke’s masterful mobile defense of the area with his combat command of the 7th Armored Division and attached units largely compensated for the loss of the infantrymen. Further, despite the Germans’ rapid rush through the Losheim Gap, the Americans’ stalwart defense of the commanding Elsenborn Ridge stymied the enemy’s ability to exploit the rupture. It seems clear that when the leadership successes and failures of this battle are closely examined—when the actions and command decisions of the senior American commanders and their resulting impact on the battle’s outcome are weighed and measured on the scales of victory and defeat—American battle leadership was a tremendous success.

The senior leaders like Eisenhower, Simpson, Patton, Middleton, and Clarke actually won this greatest land battle in U.S. history; they didn’t merely survive it. Their battle leadership in the Ardennes was not that of military incompetents or amateurs who didn’t know their jobs. Ike and the other successful American commanders showed they knew exactly what had to be done, and they quickly set about doing it. On balance, American battle leadership in America’s greatest land battle proved decisively successful.

KNOWLEDGE AND PROFESSIONAL SKILL

These U.S. Army senior World War II commanders all had to study and learn their trade, then practice it before they could become successful battle leaders, and they had all engaged in the systematic study of warfare, in one form or another, their whole adult lives. With few exceptions, these leaders attended a progressively higher series of schools and professional military education courses, alternating with ever more demanding command and staff officer assignments. Through these alternating line and school duties, they gained a background of knowledge and professional skill leading to positions of ever-increasing responsibilities. Once the war began, they gained combat experience and learned valuable lessons in combat command on the battlefields of North Africa, Sicily, and France.

The meek, the incompetent, and the troublesome were, for the most part, weeded out on those same battlefields, their places taken by others who, having been similarly prepared, were moved up from subordinate commands or were impatiently waiting in the wings for their own chance.15 They all learned the basics of their trade between the World Wars in service schools like the Command and General Staff School, the War College, and the Army Industrial College. They supplemented the basics with practical knowledge gleaned from a variety of command and staff assignments in troop units spread over the globe in such places as the Philippines, Hawaii, the Canal Zone, and the United States. While still junior officers, they challenged their ingenuity and broadened their perspectives and experience in other varied duties such as organizing and running the Civilian Conservation Corps, teaching ROTC and coaching college football, or managing an engineer district the size of Texas.18 They served apprenticeships under more senior commanders like George Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Fox Conner, and Adna R. Chaffee and they continued to learn. And throughout their careers, they interacted with and learned from each other, growing as leaders. When the lucky few were chosen from the pack and given senior command during the war, the competent ones gained valuable combat experience they put to good use and continued to advance. Those found lacking in competence, skill, and higher command ability typically were summarily sent back to the States to serve in training units or to perform administrative duties—often, the humiliation of being removed from overseas combat assignments was made even worse when the failed leaders were, in effect, demoted by being forced to revert to their much lower prewar “peacetime Army” ranks.

CHARACTER COUNTS

The commonality of prewar training, education, and experience of the U. S. Army’s senior World War II leaders raises another vital question: If these officers’ preparation and backgrounds were so similar, why did some succeed while others failed? The answer has little to do with their prewar career experiences or even the unpredictable vagaries of luck. The answer lies within each man. It’s called character. The phrase “character counts” is a time-worn, often overused platitude. Yet, it has the single redeeming virtue of being true. The personalities of leaders vary. The specific techniques, procedures, and command styles leaders use to control the ebb and flow of battle typically are unique to the individual. But the key, defining quality that separates leadership success from failure is character and it does, indeed, count. Strength of character is the common denominator shared by successful leaders of such disparate personalities and command styles as Eisenhower, Simpson, Patton, Middleton, and Clarke. And it is the quality most often found lacking in those instances of leadership failure displayed notably by Bradley, Hodges, and Jones.

Character is created by the values and beliefs instilled in an individual from an early age by family, trusted friends, and admired role models; then, it becomes deeply embedded and reinforced through defining life experiences; and, finally, it is internalized by faithful adherence to a strong ethical code that places selfless service and duty above purely personal gain. Strength of character not only allows leaders to recognize what “the right thing to do” is in a difficult situation, but also provides them the inner strength and moral courage to actually do it when they otherwise might be tempted to take the easy way out.

The Battle of the Bulge placed incredible stress on commanders at all levels, particularly American senior leaders whose decisions determined the fate of thousands of soldiers reeling under the German onslaught. Under such phenomenal pressure leaders of character showed their mettle. Leaders lacking in this defining quality usually failed, unless they were incredibly lucky or an exceptionally competent subordinate stepped forward to fill the leadership void. Several instances of contrasting character among senior commanders during the U.S. Army’s greatest battle stand out.

Eisenhower’s morally courageous decision on 20 December 1944 to relieve Bradley of army group command for the duration of the battle demonstrated the strength of Ike’s character and revealed a weakness in Bradley’s. Ignoring the fact that his command failures to this point in the battle had essentially forced Eisenhower to implement the action while unable to provide valid tactical reasons as to why he should retain his entire command, Bradley’s protests seem clearly to be motivated by how Ike’s decision would affect his own image and career. As Jonathan Jordan perceptively wrote, although Bradley could not articulate to Ike why giving Monty command of two-thirds of his army group was a bad idea tactically, he clearly realized that “it was certainly a bad move for Omar Bradley” professionally.

At the army level, the command decisions, prompt actions, and coolness under stress of both the steady Simpson and the volatile, brilliant Patton stand in stark contrast to Hodges’s egregious lapses in character and judgment. In particular, Simpson’s unselfish and key contributions to providing Eisenhower with many of the troops Ike needed to turn the tide of the battle—and his loyal support of Ike’s decision to place Ninth Army under Montgomery’s command—demonstrated superb strength of character.

VIII Corps commander, Middleton, not only demonstrated character that was calm and cool under fire, but featured Middleton’s moral courage in going against accepted tactics, organization, and procedures. When he broke up Roberts’s 10th Armored Division Combat Command B into smaller formations and when he used combat engineers as fighting infantrymen, Middleton realized that his actions would inevitably garner criticism. Yet, he knew that in the desperate situation it was “the right thing to do” and had the moral courage to do it.

Perhaps the starkest contrast in character revealed by the Battle of the Bulge was that between Bruce C. Clarke and Alan Jones. Although the precarious situation of Jones’s 106th Division at St.-Vith during the first two days of the German onslaught was hardly of his making, Jones nevertheless failed to exhibit the necessary strength of character that might have prevented a bad situation from becoming the disaster for his division that it was. Clarke was disturbed at the chaos that Jones’s weak leadership allowed to reign in his division headquarters, but he was personally appalled when he witnessed that Jones, in Clarke’s words, “deliberately lied” to his corps commander Middleton by intentionally misrepresenting the dire situation as “things are looking up…we are going to be all right”—and according to Clarke, continued to lie to cover it up over the next few days. In contrast to Jones, Clarke’s character was severely tested during the week-long cauldron of his magnificent defense of St.-Vith—and came through in flying colors.

The best of the U.S. senior commanders had their share of failures, and even the unluckiest ones, those most victimized by the unexpected German offensive, experienced at least some measure of success. Combat is an incredibly confusing and obscure environment, and the waging of war is an imprecise science that, if it follows any law, seems most faithful to the Law written by the mythical Murphy. Sorting out the “good” leaders from the “bad” is no easy task; they are often two manifestations of the same commander’s leadership and character. But, in the end, whether they were good leaders or bad, heroes or victims, most of the senior combat leaders of the American Army in northwest Europe found themselves in the Ardennes that terrible December to face what became one of the greatest tests of their battle leadership the war would produce. In this final exam in battle leadership that called on all their knowledge and experience they had gained over the decades leading up to the Battle of the Bulge, it seems clear that the leaders of skill and character passed this test.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.