Any discussion of failed Allied generals in the Second World War will throw up the names of the British commanders who failed in North Africa and Malaya (Cunningham, Ritchie and Percival will be covered in another posts), and the three American Corps commanders who were sacked at Kasserine, Salerno and Anzio. This post will look at the Americans.
In some ways the comparisons are ridiculous. The characters of the three were completely different. Major General Lloyd Fredendall was a pompous egotistical braggart in the Patton mould, but without Patton’s redeeming features of leadership and battlefield nouse. After failing appallingly at Kasserine, he was sent home to a training command.
Major General Ernest Dawley was supposed to be a good reliable leader, but Patton at 7th Army had asked to exchange him for Bradley (whom he trusted), and so he was left to 5th Army. His superior there, General Clarke, hovered over him like a mother hen at Salerno, but to little effect. Alexander called him a ‘broken reed’, and Eisenhower expressed frustration at Clarke’s unwillingness to sack him. He went home to a training command.
Major General John Lucas was a calm, quiet, fatherly and extremely cautious man, who was also indecisive and lacked any notable battlefield leadership skills. He was sacked in the middle of the battle. He went home to a training command.
Truthfully, the three men had very different personalities, and very different approaches to leading men. Looking for a common theme in why they were promoted to positions they all proved completely unsuitable for leads to only one result. General George Marshall. He thought they were all going to be excellent. (In fact his phrasing goes considerable beyond that. “I like that man, he’s a fighter”, was his comment on Fredendall, who front line generals later branded a moral and physical coward.)
Eisenhower, who was responsible for appointing actual combat commanders in the European Theatre of Operations, was unfortunately willing to take whoever Marshall sent him at the start of the war. Sometimes this worked out, as in the cases of Patton and Bradley, and sometimes it failed dismally, as in these three cases. Unfortunately Eisenhower was not willing to think for himself at this point, and just parroted Marshall’s opinions of men like Lucas, even if he came to regret doing so later. (Which only demonstrates the ingenousness of Eisenhower wondering why Clark was reluctant to sack men sent to him by the Marshall/Eisenhower team.) It was only as Eisenhower gained confidence later in the war - and gained experience of how often Marshall was wrong about men and situations - that he started acting with more caution. Often too late.
This is not to suggest that none of the three could have made a competent general. They all suffered from being promoted to high command with no, or extremely little, combat experience. Although Fredendall probably lacked the ability to be a real leader, the other two might have done better had they had any experience of leading Battalions or Regiments first, then Divisions for a few months, before being exposed to the role of a corps commander. Judging by their performances they may never have made dashing battlefield leaders, but they might have made what Montgomery called a ‘good plain cook’… if they had been given a chance to develop slowly.
However they suffered the fate of most generals in democracies thrown into a war for which their countries were not prepared. They had to fill roles for which they were not suited. They lacked any experience in battle, let alone experience at leading large formations. Leading large formations against the counter-attacks of high quality veteran German troops was certainly not something for which they had any real preparation. (It makes very clear the unreality of Marshall’s fantasy that untried American troops led by such untried leaders could have successfully invaded France in 1942 or 1943! As Alanbrooke commented later, Marshall’s plan would certainly have ended the war earlier, but probably not the way the Allies would have preferred.)
It should be noted however that all three, having failed at the front, were sent to training commands at home. Every army has a tendency to do this, but most also provide a few good leaders with proven ideas as well. The American fixation with putting failed leaders in charge of training was one commented on by many American generals later in the war as they continued to receive battlefield replacements that were ill prepared for the environment they were entering. Again, we see the fell hand of Marshall’s preferential treatment, and of Eisenhower’s unwillingness to disabuse his boss of his illusions.
No one would rate any of these three as good generals, but I imagine many are not as willing to concede that Dawley and Lucas were merely unfortunate to be revealed so obviously. My contention would be that many other generals were thrown unprepared into situations beyond their experience or abilities, but that most were lucky enough not to face such immediate and devastating counter-strikes that revealed their weaknesses to the whole world. Dozens of other Division, Corps and even Army leaders in the Allied ranks, possibly only did better than Dawley and Lucas in the history books because they faced much weaker opponents later in the war. Their reversals were hidden by the far larger scale of operations, that allowed their mistakes to be lost in the morass.
Even the best generals cannot be expected to be magically ready for that most dangerous of circumstances – defending against an unexpected and powerful offensive. Skills that look good using superior numbers in attack, can be shown inadequate against even inferior numbers of good troops in a well led counter-attack. Such skills take painfully learned experience to develop, and many otherwise successful generals never achieve them. (Cunningham and Hodges spring to mind – more posts later.) Most generals were never even tested at this. (Even Patton may well have been lucky that he only ever led attacks or counter-attacks, not defences. Only Montgomery amongst Allied generals repeatedly demonstrated mastery of both.)
Personality is a crucial part of being a general, but so is training, experience, competent superiors, and luck. These three lacked the personality to overcome the problem that the other factors were conspiring against them. But how many equally bad candidates managed to hide in their weaknesses in the overwhelming Allied numerical superiority at the end of the war?