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Eisenhower’s War

Eisenhower: At War, 1943–1945

by David Eisenhower
Random House, 977 pp., $29.95
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower; drawing by David Levine

1.

Of all American wars since the Revolution, the Second World War was fought with fewest regrets. Even now, after four decades, hardly anyone looks back at the war disapprovingly. Yet, in retrospect, it came to an end in a peculiarly double-edged way. That the world was rid of a Nazi tyranny will always be its proudest achievement. That it was replaced in almost half of Europe by a Communist tyranny will always darken that achievement. Any balance sheet of what the war finally accomplished cannot ignore the difference between what the war meant for Eastern and for Western Europe.

The most anguished question is whether the extension of Soviet power could have been avoided. It is a question that by its very nature can never be answered with any confidence. The war can be refought only as an exercise in speculation and hindsight, on paper. The way it—or any other war—was fought gives no reason to believe that it would have gone entirely right if it had been fought differently. What we can do now is to try to understand what hard choices had to be made and why they were made in a way that has shaped the world we live in. We may not agree on whether it was right for the Western Allies to stand by as the Red Army went into Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, but at least we can try to put ourselves back into that time and place, as if we had to face those hard choices as they arose.

Offhand, one might not imagine that a book on one Eisenhower by another would offer the best available means for making such a retrospective effort. Anyone who starts reading Eisenhower: At War by the general’s grandson, David, must wonder how “objective” or unprejudiced it can be. I opened the book with this question in mind: I closed it satisfied that the author must have known that his readers would not respect anything that smacked of an apologia or glorification.

The work is on the whole an impressive achievement. It is largely based on a thorough study of existing sources, mixed with a few sidelights from personal interviews. Despite its bulk of almost a thousand pages, it mostly deals with the last eighteen months of the war—from the Allied invasion of Normandy to the German surrender. It is for the reader who wants to refight the war at the highest level of command, sometimes day by day, often in meticulous detail. As far as I could tell, the author has done his homework; only specialists will be able to pass judgment on all the particulars.

There has been considerable interest of late in Eisenhower the president; this book may set off a new wave of interest in Eisenhower the Supreme Commander. In his introduction, David Eisenhower tells us that this is only the first of three volumes on the Eisenhower years. He is apparently prepared to spend a good part of his life on his grandfather’s career. If he carries through to the end, it will be a unique historical monument; no grandson has ever taken on such a magisterial task on behalf of a famous grandfather.

In one respect, the form of Eisenhower: At War is somewhat disconcerting. The reader immediately encounters an introduction of seventeen pages that may well raise more questions than the following 825 pages of text. David Eisenhower has seen fit in his opening pages to put forward a number of theories or interpretations that hold out a claim to originality; he promises to show how Eisenhower met political and military challenges “in ways that have not been fully understood, if understood at all.” The introduction tends to prepare the reader for a narrative that is more startling, and more tendentious, than it actually is.

Three of these novel interpretations stand out, and I will have more to say about them in due course. It may be well to state them at the outset, as David Eisenhower does, in order to keep them in mind as we go along.

  1. Eisenhower’s motives and decisions during the war were far more political than has been thought. The problems of the Allied-Soviet relationship made him “think and act as a politician.” The political aspects of his job were what it “was mainly about.”1
  2. Eisenhower’s political role led him “to cede Berlin and Prague to the Russians.” Presumably he would have done otherwise if he had been less politically motivated.
  3. On the British side of the alliance, David Eisenhower suggests—as no one to my knowledge has ever done before—that Churchill and Montgomery were not really serious about policies and strategies which they urged upon Eisenhower and which gave him so much trouble. The British proposal for a campaign in southeastern Europe “seems to have been made mainly for political reasons,” not because it was considered to be militarily feasible. Montgomery did not actually believe in his scheme in September 1944 to get to Berlin and hoped that Eisenhower would turn it down flatly. Despite their pressure for such a move, the British were “in fact lukewarm if not opposed to a Berlin campaign” even in March 1945. In short, some of the greatest British-American controversies during the war were allegedly based on disingenuous or insincere British demands.

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p class=”initial”>Despite David Eisenhower’s emphasis on the “political” Eisenhower and his insistence on focusing on the Russian problem, the book is largely taken up with the British-American military relationship. While the Soviet angle comes out more sharply than before, it occupies only a minor portion of the book. For one thing, the Soviets were so secretive about their plans and actions that there is not that much to tell, especially from their side. Though Eisenhower had to take them into account, he was usually forced to wait until they had launched their attacks to be sure of what they were doing. Scores of pages pass by with barely a mention of the Soviets. The major focus of the book is necessarily on the British-American relationship. That it was troubled at best and stormy at worst is no longer news. But David Eisenhower has put it all together so that anyone willing to make the effort can reenact the great and often painful inner conflicts at the top.

The dominating theme of the story, then, is actually the trials and tribulations of coalition warfare. In this case the coalition was made up of two intimate partners, Great Britain and the United States, with one more, the Soviets, distantly linked, and with the Canadian, Polish, French, and other contingents in subordinate roles. When one thinks of the trouble the British and Americans had working together, one wonders what in the world might happen if the sixteen members of NATO had to fight together. Essentially a study of coalition warfare, this work might well become required reading by everyone with a stake in the defense of the West.

David Eisenhower’s book stimulated me to reconsider the war in Europe, partly with his help and partly by going back to original sources. In what follows, I have tried to set forth this reconsideration in my own terms, with comments from time to on his views. I have not always agreed with him, but I have always admired the thoroughness and seriousness of his effort.

2.

The nominal head of the two-member coalition was the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His previous career had made him an unlikely candidate for the job. As a West Point graduate in 1917, he had come on the scene too late to see action in France. He had spent the 1920s going through all the right training schools for upward assignments and promotions, only to land in 1933 as special assistant to the imperious General Douglas MacArthur, whom he served in Washington and in the Philippines for the rest of the decade. In the early months of the Second World War, he seemed doomed to remain a staff officer in Washington as chief of the War Plans Division and then the Operations Division in the office of the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, another overshadowing superior.

After a decade in desk jobs, he was finally rescued from them in June 1942 by getting the appointment as commander in chief of the Allied forces in the European theater, which in practice put him in North Africa. This assignment indicated that he was Marshall’s favorite and was being groomed for bigger things. Nevertheless it had its drawbacks. Three quarters of the troops under him were British. The two leading British commanders, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander and General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, were nominally subordinate to him but far exceeded him in combat experience and actually took charge of the fighting while he was stuck away in Algiers far from the action. Eisenhower did not cover himself with glory in his Mediterranean role and still had to prove himself when he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe in January 1944.

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p class=”initial”>In one way, his first experience as Allied commander later worked against him. It gave the British a precedent for treating him as titular chief while their generals largely conducted the war on the ground. The lesson was not lost on the other ranking American generals in the Mediterranean phase, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton, Jr. They came out of North Africa and Italy resentfully determined to take over real power in Europe and to put an end to the Mediterranean practice of using piecemeal American units to support major British forces in important operations. The American sensitivity in Europe to the issue of who was commanding whom and the suspicion of Eisenhower’s susceptibility to British influence were outgrowths of his North African initiation as Allied commander.

Eisenhower: At War first invites consideration of what kind of a Supreme Commander he was in the European phase. This rank was clearly fanciful. Given the conditions he had to work with, or under, he was not and could not have been “supreme.”

He took his directions from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, made up of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee, at the head of which were General George C. Marshall for the Americans and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke for the British. They could overrule him though they were usually hesitant to do so. David Eisenhower notes that “Eisenhower’s authority would always be nebulous.”

The institutional differences between the British and American command structures made for built-in complications. The British had three autonomous commanders-in-chief for ground, air, and sea forces. The Americans had only one in ultimate command of all three services. Eisenhower as American commander had far more authority than as Allied commander. In fact, he “exercised only formalistic authority” over the British, as David Eisenhower puts it. As for the French generals, they took their orders from De Gaulle, and De Gaulle took his orders from no one.

These loose and nebulous arrangements made personal relations far more important than formal authority. In dealing with the British, Eisenhower needed professional prestige and respect. He especially needed them from the two leading British military figures, Brooke and Montgomery, the latter appointed commander of the British army in Europe. To them, he was not only not supreme; he was not even a qualified commander.

Eisenhower did not come into his appointment as Supreme Commander with the necessary prestige, because he had never commanded soldiers in the field and had for so long been a staff officer. As Supreme Commander, he had been a last-minute replacement for Marshall, when President Roosevelt had decided that he could not do without Marshall in Washington. Without a record as a combat commander, Eisenhower was a novice compared with Montgomery, the latter already immortalized by the British press as “the hero of El Alamein.” The only reason Eisenhower was chosen over Alexander or Montgomery was the recognition forced on the British that the Americans would not send a preponderance of manpower and materiel across the Atlantic unless an American was put in charge.

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p class=”initial”>It helped that Eisenhower, despite his Middle Western and German Mennonite background, was something of an Anglophile. It did not help that he had to cope with Brooke, of a family of Northern Irish baronets, and Montgomery, the unwanted child of an Anglican bishop. The fate of Allied coalition warfare was largely in the hands of this odd trio—Brooke, Montgomery, and Eisenhower.

Brooke was a man of sharp intelligence and saturnine temperament. His most lovable trait was his passion for ornithology.2 Otherwise, he was almost congenitally irascible and egocentric. Throughout the war he kept a diary in which he confided his innermost thoughts about his Allied associates and others. Almost no one gets a good word except his protégé, Montgomery. Of all his victims, Eisenhower suffers the most. Brooke portrays him as a nice fellow who meant well but who had no strategical brain for commanding armies. “Eisenhower has got absolutely no strategical outlook…. The main impression I gathered was that Eisenhower was not [a] real director of thought, plans, energy or direction…. But it is equally clear that Ike knows nothing about strategy…. Ike has the very vaguest conception of war!”3 Others have kept equally indiscreet diaries, but no military man of such eminence has had them published while his erstwhile comrades in arms were still very much alive.

Montgomery was even more trying. He was an authentic British eccentric of the most extreme type. He dressed, ate, went to sleep, and otherwise behaved eccentrically. He usually affected fur-lined boots, baggy corduroy trousers, a gray turtleneck pullover or one pullover on top of another, and a black beret, while everyone else went about in regulation uniform. He lived much of the time isolated in a trailer, accompanied by a few young aides who were the only ones permitted to eat with him. He went to sleep no later than ten in the evening, no matter what the circumstances or company. He almost always refused to attend conferences with American generals and sent his chief of staff, Major General Sir Francis de Guingand, to represent him, with no authority to make decisions. He insisted on meeting with Eisenhower alone and on doing almost all the talking. He once delivered such a bitter tirade that Eisenhower had to stop him with “Steady, Monty! You can’t speak to me like that. I’m your boss.”4

The other two ranking American generals, Bradley and Patton, loathed Montgomery. His egotism was so monumental that Bradley regarded it as “megalomania.”5 Montgomery habitually hectored the Americans as if he were a Victorian schoolmaster addressing slightly backward students. Relations became so strained that finally the Americans and he were barely on speaking terms. Bradley acknowledged that “friendly and intimate co-operation between him and the Field Marshal [Montgomery] was out of the question.”6 The long-suffering Eisenhower once dropped his guard sufficiently to say: “Montgomery had become so personal in his efforts to make sure that the Americans—and me, in particular—got no credit, that, in fact, we hardly had anything to do with the war, that I finally stopped talking to him.”7

The third and last volume of Montgomery’s official biography, which appeared in London earlier this year, portrays him as a military genius of the highest order, alloyed with tragic flaws of character. He was a congenital “bully.” Obsessiveness was a trait “ingrained in his character.” He was “outrageous in his conceit, his egoism and self-righteousness.” He “liked to dominate rather than to share.” His “tactlessness and egocentricity” outraged almost everyone, including finally the Queen. He was “the square peg in the round hole.” He treated his mother, his son, and some of his closest associates with a heartlessness and even cruelty that were pathological. The military historian Basil Liddell Hart called him “very small-boyish” and “a curious psychological case.” Malcolm Muggeridge regarded his character as “bizarre.” Goronwy Rees detected a touch of madness in him, mitigated only by the war. His son David spoke of his “overriding eccentricity.” Yet he was the key British military figure with whom Eisenhower and the Americans had to work in this coalition.8

Then there was Churchill. Unlike Roosevelt, who did not consider himself to be a military expert and rarely interfered in strictly military matters, Churchill recognized no dividing line between his political and military roles. Because he was minister of defense as well as prime minister, he regularly ignored protocol by getting in touch with commanders in the field, as if he were a member of the Chiefs of Staff. His indefatigable brain hatched scheme after scheme, almost none of which ever came to fruition.9 He was peculiarly oblivious to the well-being of the military staff, whom he habitually kept at meetings with him until two or three in the morning; they had to get up early, while he stayed in bed until noon. Brooke was the chief sufferer; Eisenhower noted in his understated way that “after about two o’clock, Brookey would get pretty tired.”10 Brooke’s memoirs are full of vivid flashes on what fighting the war with Churchill was like.11 Yet, unlike Montgomery, Churchill was always forgiven; he more than made up in morale what he cost in chasing after his strategic will-o’-the-wisps. Coalition warfare with him was not easy for the Americans; he rarely gave up even after an agreement had been reached; but he had a way in the end of making amends that seemed to leave very few permanent scars.12

The differences in the British-American coalition were by no means limited to British versus Americans. On some issues, Churchill was opposed as strenuously by his British advisers as by the Americans. Moreover, the British military staff was itself divided. All of Eisenhower’s deputies at his Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) were British.13 They almost always sided with Eisenhower against the British staff officers in London, who virtually considered the British at SHAEF to have sold out to the Americans. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, the Deputy Supreme Commander at SHAEF, was distrusted so strongly that determined efforts were made in London to remove him. Montgomery took his revenge against Eisenhower, Tedder, and SHAEF as a whole by writing in the “Log,” or record, of his Twenty-First Army Group five days after the German surrender:

The organization for command was always faulty. The Supreme Commander had no firm ideas as to how to conduct the war, and “was blown about by the wind” all over the place; at that particular business he was quite useless.

The Deputy Supreme Commander [Tedder] was completely ineffective; none of the [British] Army Commanders would see him and they growled if ever he appeared on the horizon.

The staff at SHAEF were completely out of their depth all the time.14

Montgomery frequently asked his military assistant, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Dawnay: “Why are they so hostile to me at SHAEF? Who are my enemies?” Brigadier Sir Edgar Williams, Montgomery’s intelligence officer, identified them as the four British deputies at SHAEF, Major Generals Strong, Gale, Whiteley, and Morgan.15 The British could have used a good deal more coalition among themselves in their warfare.

The Americans had their own problems. Paradoxically, while Eisenhower almost never pleased Brooke and Montgomery, he displeased Bradley, Patton, and at times Marshall for being too pro-British. The smart thing to say at Patton’s headquarters was that Eisenhower “is the best general the British have.”16 Patton agreed with Montgomery and Brooke about Eisenhower but for a different reason. “Ike is bound hand and foot by the British and does not know it. Poor fool,” Patton wrote in his diary. “We actually have no Supreme Commander—no one who can take hold and say that this shall be done and that shall not be done.”17 Though Eisenhower saved Patton from disgrace at least twice, Patton was capable of being insubordinate and even of lying or, as a military historian has put it more gently, of “stretching the truth.”18 Yet Eisenhower kept him on, because he was his most aggressive field commander. Bradley was also convinced that Eisenhower had “a tendency to favor British plans and generals, often to our detriment.”19 To prevent what they considered pro-British decisions on Eisenhower’s part, Bradley and Patton had to threaten to resign, an almost unheard-of act of desperation on the part of the highest-ranking American generals, which would have smashed any semblance of coalition warfare and ruined Eisenhower’s career. Yet Eisenhower survived even their revolts against his authority.

One cannot judge Eisenhower’s performance as Supreme Commander fairly without understanding the conditions under which he worked. These conditions were understandably covered up during the war and often mythicized afterward. Eisenhower’s chief of staff, General Walter Bedell Smith, was one of the myth makers: “General Eisenhower commanded an Allied force in which nationality was of no importance.” 20 Montgomery’s chief of staff, “Freddie” de Guingand, pretended: “The relationship between the Allies in the Second World War was truly remarkable for the small amount of friction that occurred.”21 This pious humbug does serious injustice to whatever Eisenhower achieved by making it seem so simple and easy. In reality, the Allied setup for coalition warfare was so riven with rivalries and cross-purposes that it was a wonder Eisenhower was able to survive with his sanity intact.

David Eisenhower’s treatment of General Eisenhower’s tribulations is forthright but low-key. When Montgomery kept Eisenhower waiting for hours at the former’s headquarters, David merely records that “Eisenhower accepted Montgomery’s absence graciously. In the eyes of others present, however, Montgomery’s absence appeared to be a deliberate discourtesy.” He reports everyone’s complaints and discontents without ever dramatizing them. Nevertheless, there is at least as much in his book about the conflicts between the British and Americans as about the war of both against the Germans. His long narrative is so constructed that the details are strung along in a matter-of-fact way at varying intervals, with the result that the struggles within the Allied camp never explode in any one place. One senses an inhibition against stacking the cards in favor of his grandfather and thus putting his British and American rivals and critics at too great a disadvantage.

3.

The irony is that the trouble within the British-American coalition could have been much worse if Eisenhower had been a stronger or more willful commander. The issues that divided the British and Americans were far deeper and more irreconcilable than Eisenhower’s style of command. What often passed for a disagreement with Eisenhower was really a clash between British and American interests and strategies. At the bottom of it all was a struggle for dominance that would have embroiled Great Britain and the United States with or without Eisenhower. On matters of grand strategy, he took his orders from Washington, where General Marshall was decisive. Eisenhower would not have held the job very long if he had not done what Marshall wanted him to do.

In its simplest terms, the main difference between the British and American conceptions of how to wage the war against Germany at first turned on a choice between a “peripheral” and a “frontal” strategy.

The British favored the peripheral. This implied that the only action for the foreseeable future would take place on the outskirts of Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean area, North Africa, and the Middle East. A direct attack on the German forces in Europe was not ruled out, but it was contemplated only if and when they had been so seriously weakened that no more than a short, relatively inexpensive, and final push was necessary. The campaigns in North Africa and Sicily in 1942–1943 were products of the peripheral strategy.

The Americans favored the frontal approach. It meant the use of Great Britain itself as a staging area for an invasion of France such as took place on June 6, 1944, in Normandy. The Americans agreed reluctantly to the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily only because they were not as yet ready for the cross-channel operation and did not wish to appear to be idle for over a year while waiting for it. Every time the British proposed still another peripheral action, however, the Americans regarded it with increasing distrust and disapproval.

“Had we had our way,” admitted Sir John Kennedy, who was in a position to know, “I think there can be little doubt that the invasion of France would not have been done in 1944.”22 No one can tell when it might have been done. In effect, it would have depended mainly on the Russians to produce the conditions that would have permitted the Western Allies to move in for the kill—with far-reaching consequences for the future armed division of Europe.

On this score, Eisenhower was a typical American general. He believed devoutly in the frontal strategy and had, in fact, been Chief of the Operations Division of the General Staff that had drawn up a plan for a cross-channel invasion. Had the Americans had their way, it would have been planned for the spring of 1943. Once the decision was made in the autumn of 1942 to fight in North Africa, this plan was sidetracked, much to the disgust of American military planners, who complained bitterly of “peripherypecking” and “scatterization.” 23 The Americans at this stage saw themselves as apostles of the hallowed military principles of mass and concentration. Whether the forces assembled in Great Britain in 1943 could in any case have carried out a successful invasion of the Continent is questionable, though a British writer has argued forcefully that it could have been done and regretted that it was not.24

The British handling of the “second front” issue was more devious than outright rejection. Whenever the Americans insisted strongly enough on a course of action, the British usually went along in the end, whatever their misgivings. Churchill had agreed in principle to a cross-channel invasion as early as April 1942 but had never really reconciled himself to it. Thereafter he had proposed one alternative after another, which had the practical effect of postponing an invasion to some indefinite hereafter. Every time the British thought up some other objective, such as bringing a reluctant Turkey into the war or moving into the Balkans, the Americans saw another furtive design to draw attention and resources away from the main prize on the Continent. As late as May 3, 1944, only a month before D-day, Churchill told a meeting of Dominion prime ministers that he had wanted to wage the war in a different way by going into Europe from the southeast instead of the north-west. In his memoirs, Churchill was somewhat less than guileless. He reminds the reader that he “was always willing to join with the United States in a direct assault across the Channel,” but that he “was not convinced that this was the only way of winning the war.”25 In fact, he was not convinced that this was any way of winning the war short of a virtually unopposed assault on a weakened Germany.

The British attitude toward the growing American predominance in the war came out most vehemently during the long wrangle in mid-1944 over the subsidiary landing in southern France, which the British opposed and the Americans favored. By this time, the Americans had over eleven million men in arms, the British five million. The British had exhausted their supply of replacements, the Americans were still sending over new divisions. Brooke noted in his diary: “The situation is full of difficulties; the Americans now begin to own the major strength on land, in the air and on the sea. They, therefore, consider that they are entitled to dictate how their forces are to be deployed.” The British chiefs finally dropped their opposition by adopting this line of reasoning: “All right, if you insist on being damned fools, sooner than fall out with you, which would be fatal, we shall be damned fools with you, and we shall see that we perform the role of damned fools damned well.”26

The controversy over “ANVIL,” the code name for the landing in southern France, one of the longest and most divisive disputes of the entire war, tests David Eisenhower’s thesis that Eisenhower’s major decisions were at least as much political as military, or were primarily political. Even in his introduction, where so much emphasis is put on the political Eisenhower, it is admitted that his “crucial decision to back ANVIL rested on military factors.” In the body of the book, we are told that Eisenhower resisted Churchill on the ground that he, Eisenhower, “lacked political authority” to recommend that the landing should be shifted from southern France to Brittany. In this case, Eisenhower had hardly seemed to “think and act as a politician.”

Yet political factors had intruded into the ANVIL controversy, as in most of these inter-Allied disputes. A landing in southern France in support of the cross-channel invasion had been agreed on with Stalin at the Teheran conference in November 1943. By mid-1944, after the successful landing in Normandy and a steady Russian advance toward the borders of East Prussia, Poland, and Rumania, any proposal for the British and Americans in Italy to go into the Balkans or anywhere else in southeastern Europe carried with it the implication of competition with the Soviets for control of the region and a threat to Allied-Soviet military cooperation. Here again David Eisenhower produces a provocative interpretation of British motivation that makes it seem to be something other than the British claimed it was.

The issue was then raised by General Sir Henry Maitland Wilson, the British supreme commander in the Mediterranean, only about two weeks after the Normandy landing in June 1944; he wanted to use the forces in Italy for a campaign from Venice to Trieste and on through the Ljubljana Gap toward Vienna. David Eisenhower gives three reasons why Wilson’s proposal was striking in its “unreality.” Even the British chiefs of staff, he writes, knew that a Vienna strategy was not a practical alternative. From this he infers that it “was not so much a ‘military’ proposal to exploit an illusory Allied freedom of action but an attempt to influence policy months, perhaps years, hence.”

It is an intriguing but implausible theory. Wilson was a professional military man. He made what appeared to be a strictly military proposal in the midst of a most difficult and dangerous period of the Normandy campaign. That he should have put his name to a plan that he did not intend at that time to be taken seriously and only wanted to draw attention to future Soviet domination of Eastern Europe strains credulity. The British generals in the Mediterranean were always trying with Churchill’s encouragement to find a larger mission for their command and increased support for the British forces in Italy. There would never be any military failures if their “unreality” were enough to rule them out as real intentions. This theory also implies that the British were not really serious about blocking the Soviet incursion into Eastern Europe in 1944 and merely concocted a visionary plan to make a political point for “perhaps years, hence.” It is hard to imagine responsible leaders during a war spending so much time and causing so much discord for a cause so remote.

Who was right in these typical British-American disagreements of World War II?

Each was right, it seems to me, to want to fight the war according to its best interests and optimal use of its resources. The imperial lifeline—when the British Empire was still more than a historical memory—extended across the Mediterranean to the Middle East. The Mediterranean front was the only one throughout the war in which the British had the preponderance of forces and superiority of command. Churchill was always seeking targets along the Mediterranean that seemed to offer maximum rewards with minimum expenditure of force. A frontal attack on German defenses in France brought back the nightmare of human sacrifices in the First World War. “The fearful price we had had to pay in human life and blood for the great offensives of the First World War was graven in my mind,” wrote Churchill in explanation of his doubts about the advisability of a direct assault across the channel.27 It was only right that this price should have been graven in his mind. Yet the Americans regarded this British preoccupation with scorn and took it to be a failure of nerve.

The American had had no such fearful experience in the First World War. They saw no reason to fight the war in behalf of British imperial interests. Roosevelt was a typical American in his desire that the war should end with the end of all the old-time empires, the French as well as the British American resources seemed for a time to be limitless, though even they were eventually strained to the utmost to fight wars across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. American military tradition and doctrine called for striking a decisive blow at the enemy’s main force. The British preference for peripheral raids and incursions was regarded as a policy of pinpricks that promised to extend the war indefinitely or until the Russians had all but won it by themselves.

Eisenhower had insisted back in 1942 that “the full might of Great Britain and the United States could not possibly be concentrated in the Mediterranean,” that “the best choice was invasion of northwest Europe, using England as a base,” and that “no other operation could do more than peck at the outer perimeter of the German defense.”28 The best choice for the Americans was not necessarily the best choice for the British, though the British themselves were not always united on what the best choice was for them. Yet the recriminations on both sides went on endlessly, because neither side could bring itself to accept the fact that one strategy was just as legitimate as the other, depending on the vantage point from which the choice was made.

Of all the disagreements that beset the British-American coalition, those bearing on war aims were the hardest to reconcile. Each side was more interested in accusing the other of pursuing national interests than of recognizing that different national interests were natural and understandable in the circumstances. The reconciliation or accommodation of divergent national interests would have been difficult enough, but there does not seem to have been much thought given to it or recognition that it was necessary to make the effort. So long as the British had the upper hand, they dragged the Americans along; then the Americans gained the upper hand and dragged the British along.

4.

David Eisenhower does well to show how the general grew into his role. It was not a steady, uniform advance. Eisenhower was, as David puts it, by nature “open-minded and conciliatory.” His first impulse was always to “grope for compromise.” Yet criticism of his disposition to compromise can be misplaced. If there are no compromises in coalition warfare, there may very well be no coalition. Still, there are compromises and compromises Some of Eisenhower’s compromises worked for the good of the whole enterprise; some did not.

An example of one of the better and easier compromises came early in the preparation for the Normandy landings. Eisenhower had insisted on his personal control of the strategic air forces in direct support of the invasion forces. The “air barons” resisted tenaciously. Eisenhower was so convinced of the necessity for total control of all the factors determining the success of the infinitely complex operation that he threatened to resign if he did not get what he thought he needed. The threat led to a British proposal to give him “supervision” of the bombers. The American side suggested “command.” A compromise was reached to use the term ‘direction.” Eisenhower was satisfied.

The actual command of the Normandy invasion was settled in a fashion that was far more troublesome. The two landing forces, one British, the other American, were put under the direct command of Montgomery, who for the time being doubled as both Allied and British ground commander. Once both forces were firmly implanted in Normandy, however, the arrangement provided for a takeover of the ground command of the British and Americans by Eisenhower, whose projected role was also double, but this time Allied and American. The changeover was scheduled for September 1, 1944, by which time Montgomery was determined to circumvent it. His next move was the beginning of months of the most intense and disruptive infighting at the top.

Beginning in August, Montgomery initiated a campaign that challenged Eisenhower’s basic strategy and imminent assumption of personal battlefield command. The “broad-front” strategy was not peculiarly Eisenhower’s; it was the unequivocal policy of Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Eisenhower certainly believed in it; he was charged with carrying it out; and he had to take the brunt of the British effort to scuttle it. By that time, Paris had been liberated and the Seine crossed—by the Twenty-First Army Group under Montgomery in the north and the Twelfth Army Group under Bradley in the center and south. Bradley was about to get the same status as Montgomery, with Eisenhower above both of them. Bradley had the American First Army under General Courtney H. Hodges in the center and the American Third Army under Patton in the south. The American Sixth Army Group under General Jacob Devers was coming up from Marseilles to link up with Patton.

The problem at that moment was how to take advantage of the headlong German retreat and possibly end the war in 1944. By mid-August, Montgomery had a plan. In essence, it called for the abandonment of the broad-front strategy whereby all the forces all along the line pushed forward together, each sector looking for a weak spot in the enemy’s lineup to exploit. Montgomery conceived of a “single thrust” in the northeast to capture the channel ports, especially Antwerp; to seize the Ruhr; and to strike out for Berlin. To accomplish this feat, Montgomery reckoned that he needed the support of at least nine US divisions from Hodges’ First Army, with the leading role allotted to his own Twenty-First Army Group. The practical consequences of his proposal were startling—that all other action all along the front should be brought to a halt; that he should be given complete command of the operation; that all available supplies should go to him; and that the previous command structure, which had put him in overall ground command, should remain unchanged instead of going to Eisenhower on September 1. Montgomery was virtually offering to win the war in the West all by himself, if only the Americans would give him the additional means to do so. After the peripheral-frontal dispute, the broad front-single thrust disagreement plagued the Allies the most to the end of the war.

As may be imagined, Montgomery’s plan did not endear itself to the American commanders, least of all to Bradley and Patton, who would have been immobilized. All the Mediterranean resentments, from North Africa onward, broke loose. Montgomery’s challenge tested Eisenhower’s “supreme command” as never before. We need to now try to judge whether Montgomery’s plan would have worked and shortened the war by at least six months, as he claimed it would have done; only speculation is possible, because it was never fully tried. Our interest is in how Eisenhower reacted to it, and how David Eisenhower reacts to his subject’s reaction.

Eisenhower considered Montgomery’s plan to be “fantastic.”29 Among other things, it implicitly cut Eisenhower out from direct command of an action intended to end the war. It faced Eisenhower with a revolt by Bradley and Patton, who had no intention of being stopped in their tracks for the greater glory of Montgomery and of being reduced to the status of spectators at the presumptive climax. It would have made a shambles of Eisenhower’s established broad-front strategy. Montgomery’s plan was so vulnerable from a strictly military point of view that even the official British military history stresses its “serious difficulties.”30 Montgomery’s plan was based on the assumption that they Germans were so demoralized that they were incapable of defending themselves; Eisenhower believed that the enemy was capable of one more “all-out defensive battle in the West.”31 If Montgomery was right, the military risks of going seven hundred miles to Berlin with almost all the supplies still coming from the Normandy beaches were minimal; if Eisenhower was right, Montgomery’s plan invited disaster.

Eisenhower and Montgomery seemed to be changing personas. Until now, Eisenhower had been complaining that Montgomery had not been aggressive enough. Caution had been Montgomery’s outstanding attribute. He was, as Eisenhower later put it, the master of the “formal, set-piece attack,” which required “careful, meticulous, and certain” preparation.32 Risk taking was not in his nature, because he wished at all costs to avoid defeat. His own chief of staff has testified to his reluctance to take risks.33 Now he was proposing to take such risks that the Americans were appalled. Paradoxically, Eisenhower in this case appeared to be the cautious one, Montgomery the compulsive gambler. The Americans had previously complained that the peripheral strategy of the British had violated the principles of mass and concentration; now the British complained that the broad-front strategy of the Americans was violating the same principles.

This incident—typical of others in the next few months—is treated by David Eisenhower in full detail and offers the reader a good idea of how he handles the most controversial issues. “As usual,” he remarks, “Eisenhower groped for compromise.” In effect, Eisenhower decided to meet Montgomery part way by giving him some American support to take Antwerp, while not yet approving the follow up to Berlin and offering several alternative objectives to Berlin. Yet he assured Montgomery, “Clearly, Berlin is the main prize” and “there is no doubt whatsoever, in my mind, that we should concentrate all our energies and resources on a rapid thrust to Berlin.”34

Nevertheless, David Eisenhower is convinced that “Eisenhower never considered the single-thrust idea—only ways to derail it.” If so, Eisenhower went about the derailment in an uncharacteristically disingenuous fashion and satisfied no one. Montgomery for the rest of his life blamed Eisenhower for not giving him enough to do the job properly; Bradley and Patton railed that he had given away too much. David Eisenhower’s account is, characteristically, both candid and charitable:

Eisenhower assigned Montgomery the objective, but he did not assign the American troops to assist in taking the objective…. In short, Eisenhower was giving Montgomery an opportunity to accomplish several things simultaneously: first, to satisfy a precondition for a Ruhr-Berlin offensive [by initially taking Antwerp]; second, to surmount Eisenhower’s skepticism about Montgomery’s plan as a whole.

It is hard to see how Montgomery could have surmounted Eisenhower’s skepticism about his plan as a whole if Eisenhower did not give him the means that he had considered necessary to make good on the plan as a whole. In fact, Eisenhower gave Montgomery the means to do what Eisenhower wanted him to do—to capture Antwerp and open a port of entry for supplies—and not enough to do what Eisenhower did not want him to attempt—to drive on to Berlin in one swoop. It was the way Eisenhower dealt with the problem that so disturbed Montgomery. As David Eisenhower suggests, Eisenhower seemed to dare Montgomery to make good on his plan, but in a piecemeal fashion, whereas Montgomery’s entire conception depended on cutting through a supposedly demoralized enemy in a single operation. To prove in that fashion that Montgomery was wrong did not betoken a strong-minded or strong-willed commander. Bradley commented scornfully that “a real military commander” would have behaved differently. David Eisenhower replies to Bradley: “But a ‘real military commander’ in Eisenhower’s shoes would not have lasted two months in his job, as events would show.” That was probably so, but it acknowledges that Eisenhower was not yet a real military commander—or might never be permitted to be one.

The denouement was costly. Antwerp was taken on September 4, but it was valueless as a port of entry unless the enemy was cleared out of the Scheldt estuary across some fifty miles of sea, with Arnhem the critical objective. Montgomery’s misjudgment at this point—the only “bad mistake” he ever admitted committing35—ended in the almost total loss of the British First Airborne Division, one of the worst miscarriages of the war. Not until the end of November was the first ship unloaded at Antwerp, much too late to have done any good for Montgomery’s grandiose plan. The delay and, even more spectacularly, the German breakthrough in the Ardennes the following month seemed to prove Eisenhower’s point that the enemy was far from finished, but it is no credit to him that he had tried to prove a point in that halfhearted fashion.

Here again David Eisenhower casts doubt on the genuineness of Montgomery’s stated motive for proposing to lead a march to Berlin in September 1944. In his introduction, he offers the thought that Montgomery’s plan “did not represent Montgomery’s actual belief” that he could get to Berlin and end the war. Instead, it appears to David Eisenhower that “the British were posing the issue of Russia and Eastern Europe in the guise of a strategic choice, and once again forcing Eisenhower to confront the political consequences of his military actions,” namely, to stay with his broad-front offensive instead of agreeing to a “single thrust” to Berlin. David Eisenhower tells the story fairly, but his interpretation strikes me as far-fetched.

Montgomery’s plan assumed that the German defenses in the West were crumbling and that it was necessary to strike immediately to go through them all the way to Berlin. On this assumption, Montgomery was deadly serious about the strictly military merit of his plan. For the rest of his life Montgomery accused Eisenhower of having needlessly lengthened the war by six months by not whole-heartedly embracing his strategy. Montgomery prided himself on his austere military professionalism; he was a notorious innocent politically. That he of all people should have actually disbelieved in his military proposal and merely wanted to pose a political issue in military guise borders on the incredible. In this case, David Eisenhower politicizes Montgomery too much as elsewhere he politicizes Eisenhower too much.

Montgomery and Brooke did not let up in their efforts to get rid of Eisenhower and his broad-front approach. The German counterattack in the Ardennes almost brought about a total breach in the top command. To Bradley’s disgust, Eisenhower temporarily transferred his First and Ninth armies to Montgomery’s command. As the crisis eased, Bradley wanted to get back at least the First Army; Montgomery opposed any change. Again Eisenhower had difficulty choosing. As David Eisenhower tells the story, “Eisenhower characteristically found himself in sympathy with both Bradley and Montgomery.” In the midst of the turmoil, Montgomery saw fit to demand “operational control” over the entire northern sector, again seeking to replace Eisenhower in direct command. Eisenhower reacted with such fury that he drafted a message to the combined Chiefs of Staff to choose between him and Montgomery and to replace Montgomery with Alexander—but never sent it. Bradley considered resigning.

Afterward, Montgomery, oblivious to the rage he had inspired in the Americans, held a press conference at which he claimed personal credit for having stopped the Germans. In his memoirs, Eisenhower, not given to overstatement, acknowledged that “this incident caused me more distress and worry than did any similar one of the war.”36 Churchill had to step into the breach with a parliamentary speech in which he denied that the fighting in the Ardennes had been “an Anglo-American battle.” He informed the British public, which had been led to believe that Montgomery had been the savior of the stricken Americans, that “in fact, however, the United States troops have done almost all the fighting, and have suffered almost all the losses.” He pointedly referred to it as “the greatest American battle of the war.”37 Montgomery sent Eisenhower a personal letter of apology when he learned that Eisenhower was just about to demand his replacement by Alexander.38 The crisis at the top passed, but just barely.

From Normandy to the Ardennes Eisenhower seemed to react defensively to the indignities and defiances to which he was subjected almost without respite. He was caught between the British higher-ups, who did not bother to conceal their contempt for his generalship, and his American subordinates, who were contemptuous of his futile efforts to appease the British. Coalition warfare was, paradoxically, “warfare” within the highest echelons of the coalition. Of the internal struggle that had taken place at the time of the Normandy battle a previous study of Eisenhower’s military career went so far as to make this observation: “The Allied generals seemed to be fighting one another more than the Germans.”39 It sometimes seemed a wonder that the Allied generals had any mind or energy left to fight the Germans.

A new Eisenhower appeared to emerge after the ordeal of the Ardennes. He had survived the greatest of his trials with both the German and Allied generals; he became, according to Bradley, “more forceful and commanding” than ever before.40 This should be a caution that Eisenhower’s career as Supreme Commander cannot be summed up in an easy or simple formula. He grew in the job; like the presidency, it permitted only on-the-job training. Yet life as Supreme Commander was no easier for him after he had begun to make decisions more commandingly. Those who disliked his decisions before were apt to dislike them all the more afterward.

Eisenhower and Montgomery were the two extremes in this type of coalition warfare. If one believes much of British literature on the war, Eisenhower had only one thing going for him—that, as Montgomery’s official biographer has put it, “there was really only one Allied soldier and leader who inspired a spirit of continuing Allied dignity and resolution.”41 If there was really only one, it is to be wondered what might have happened if he had not been there. Otherwise, the same opinion holds that Eisenhower was always wrong and Montgomery was almost always right in purely military matters. The debate over Eisenhower’s military decisions will go on forever, partly because the facts are in dispute, but there is no dispute about his indispensability as the soul of the alliance.

If anyone was unfit for coalition warfare, it was Montgomery. Even if he was the military genius that his idolators claim he was, he did not have at his own command the forces needed to carry out his plans. Dogmatic, dictatorial, he often defeated his own purposes by refusing to adapt his ends to his means. Coalition warfare for him meant putting the entire resources of the coalition at his disposal. That Montgomery was so flagrantly miscast as a leading partner in a coalition suggests that too little thought had been given to the requirements of this type of warfare. Eisenhower raised the question for the British whether an aptitude for coalition warfare can compensate for alleged military ineptitude; Montgomery raised the question for the Americans whether disqualification for coalition warfare can be compensated for by alleged military brilliance.

One lesson to be learned from both Eisenhower and Montgomery would seem to be that a certain temperament, character, or personality is necessary in the top command to make coalition warfare work. Professional competence cannot be enough.

This is the first part of a three-part article.

  1. 1

    Here as elsewhere, the emphasis in the introduction is not always consistent with that in the body of the book. In his conclusion, David Eisenhower also writes: “To the end, Eisenhower’s approach was military: defeating the German army and gaining an unconditional cease-fire” (p. 789). 

  2. 2

    The story is told by Sir John Kennedy, the Deputy Director of Military Operations of the British army, that Brooke was one day tired and depressed. Kennedy thought it must have been caused by had news in the war. He later found out that something else was bothering Brooke—”he was unable to identify some of the birds in the volumes of Levaillant he had acquired, for lack of a proper French dictionary of archaic bird names” (Sir John Kennedy, The Business of War, Morrow, 1958, p. 301). 

  3. 3

    Brooke did not publish his diaries directly. Instead, he enabled the British historian Arthur Bryant to use them in extenso in two books, The Turn of the Tide and Triumph in the West (Double-day, 1957 and 1959; the quotations above are from the latter, pp. 100, 139, 181). Brooke generally followed these disparagements with intended compliments, such as this: “Just a co-ordinator, a good mixer, a champion of inter-Allied cooperation, and in those respects few can hold a candle to him” (pp. 189–190). 

  4. 4

    Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (London: Collins, 1952), p. 489. Wilmot, an able journalist, whose book is still worth reading, first popularized the British view that Eisenhower was a “military statesman rather than the generalissimo…open to persuasion by the last strong man to whom he talked” (pp. 467–468). Wilmot’s book was virtually dictated by Montgomery in those passages dealing with strategic disputes and Eisenhower’s shortcomings. 

  5. 5

    Omar N. Bradley and Clay Blair, A General’s Life (Simon and Schuster, 1983), pp. 326, 340, 396. For good measure, Bradley also calls Montgomery “this arrogant egomaniac” (p. 394). Bradley had published memoirs soon after the war in which he had treated Montgomery gently (A Soldier’s Story, Holt, 1951). In his second version, A General’s Life, he really let loose what had been long suppressed; he mentions Montgomery twelve times, almost always with unconcealed detestation. 

  6. 6

    Lord Tedder, With Prejudice (London: Cassell, 1966), p. 658. 

  7. 7

    Cornelius Ryan, The Last Battle (Simon and Schuster, 1966), p. 658. 

  8. 8

    Nigel Hamilton, Monty the Field-Marshal 1944–1976 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986), pp. 246, 250, 265, 267, 565, 692, 708, 809, 941. 

  9. 9

    Brooke’s analysis of Churchill as a strategist rings truest: “In all his plans he lives from hand to mouth; he can never grasp a whole plan either in its width (i.e. all its fronts) or its depth (long-term projects).” The next two paragraphs dramatically illustrate Brooke’s meaning (Bryant, Triumph in the West, pp. 98–99). 

  10. 10

    General Eisenhower on the Military Churchill (Norton, 1970), p. 30. 

  11. 11

    One example: “Winston related all his old reminiscences connected with various Cabinet appointments he has held, none of which have any bearing on the points under discussion. I remain very fond of him, but, by Heaven, he does try one’s patience!” (Triumph in the West, p. 183). 

  12. 12

    Bryant: “What upset Brooke and his colleagues was that, on his [Churchill’s] being asked to approve the plans they had prepared for implementing the agreement made with the Americans at Cairo for future strategy against Japan, he had denied all knowledge of such an agreement. When they reminded him that he and the President had initialled it, he replied that he did not consider his doing so binding. Instead he reverted to his old project, rejected by both the British and American Chiefs of Staff, for a landing in Sumatra which he believed, entirely contrary to their opinion, would cut Japan’s seaborne communications with Burma” (Triumph in the West, p. 99). 

  13. 13

    The four Deputy Chiefs of Staff, the Allied Naval Commander, and the Air Commander in Chief were British. Only the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, was American (for the entire roster at SHAEF, see Forrest C. Pogue, The Supreme Command, in the series United States Army in World War II, Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington, D.C., 1954, pp. 536–538). 

  14. 14

    Richard Lamb, Montgomery in Europe 1943–45 (Franklin Watts, 1984), p. 394. 

  15. 15

    Lamb, Montgomery in Europe 1943–45, p. 378. 

  16. 16

    Ladislas Farago, Patton: Ordeal and Triumph (Obolensky, 1963), p. 674. 

  17. 17

    Martin Blumenson, The Patton Papers (Houghton Mifflin, 1974), vol. II, p. 480. 

  18. 18

    Russell F. Weigley, Eisenhower’s Lieutenants (Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 266. 

  19. 19

    Bradley and Blair, A General’s Life, p. 315. 

  20. 20

    Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s Six Great Decisions (Longmans, Green, 1956), p. 167. 

  21. 21

    Major General Sir Francis de Guingand, Generals at War (Hodder and Stoughton, 1964), p. 99. 

  22. 22

    Kennedy, The Business of War, p. 305. 

  23. 23

    Maurice Matloff, Strategic Planning for Coalition Warfare 1943–1944 (Office of the Chief of Military History, Washington D.C., 1959), p. 14. 

  24. 24

    John Grigg, 1943: The Victory That Never Was (Hill and Wang, 1980). 

  25. 25

    Winston S. Churchill, Closing the Ring (Houghton Mifflin, 1951), p. 582. 

  26. 26

    Bryant, Triumph in the West, pp.167–168. When Churchill lost a long argument over the abandonment or delay of the landing in southern France, he characteristically gave in, saying: “I pray God that you may be right. We shall of course do everything in our power to help you achieve success” (Triumph and Tragedy, Houghton Mifflin, 1953, p. 71). 

  27. 27

    Churchill, Closing the Ring, p. 582. 

  28. 28

    Dwight D. Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe (Doubleday, 1948), pp. 45–46. 

  29. 29

    Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, pp. 292–293, 305–306. 

  30. 30

    John Ehrman, History of the Second World War, vol. V: Grand Strategy (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1956), pp. 379–381. 

  31. 31

    Eisenhower to Montgomery, September 16, 1944, The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), vol. IV, p. 2152. Hereafter Eisenhower Papers

  32. 32

    Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, pp. 211, 387. 

  33. 33

    De Guingand, Generals at War, p. 76. 

  34. 34

    Eisenhower Papers, vol. IV, p. 2148. 

  35. 35

    The Memoirs of Field Marshal the Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, K.G. (World Publishing Co., 1958), p. 266. Hereafter Montgomery Memoirs

  36. 36

    Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe, p. 356. 

  37. 37

    House of Commons, January 18, 1945. 

  38. 38

    Montgomery Memoirs, p. 286. 

  39. 39

    Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: A Life (Simon and Schuster, 1983), vol. I, p. 327. Eisenhower had anticipated just such infighting in 1943: “I am not so incredibly naive that I do not realize that Britishers instinctively approach every military problem from the viewpoint of the Empire, just as we approach them from the viewpoint of American interests. But one of the constant sources of danger to us in this war is the temptation to regard as our first enemy the partner that must work with us in defeating the real enemy” (Eisenhower Papers, vol. II, p. 928). 

  40. 40

    Bradley and Blair, A General’s Life, p. 373. 

  41. 41

    Hamilton, Monty the Field-Marshal 1944–1976, p. 530.