Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rating General Lucian Truscott (Jr)

One of the most experienced American Generals of the Second World War, Lucian Truscott had the rare advantage of commanding units of several sizes in actions of various durations and intensity as he built up the experience necessary to be an effective army commander.

Despite having been a school teacher up until becoming a ’90 day wonder’ officer in the Great War, he became one of the best practitioners of the military arts that the United States has ever produced. A particularly impressive achievement given that he spent the entire First World War in a training camp in the Uited States, and had no combat experience at all when he was first sent to the European Theatre of Operations in 1942. From a position as a newly promoted Colonel, he had been chosen to head a group of officers who would get some combat experience to pass on to other officers, through the process of working with the new British Commando units.

Truscott had spent much of the interwar period in the cavalry, and in the cavalry staff school, so he was bewildered as to why anybody would have thought him appropriate to run a group that would learn to specialise in Amphibious Operations. But he had an unexpected advantage. He had become a devotee of the prestige game of the American officer corps, Polo, and was considered one of the army’s foremost practitioners. The reason for his selectioin became a bit more clear when Eisenhower briefed him on working with Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Command, and then asked “Did you know that Lord Louis wrote a book on Polo?”

Such are the vagaries of decision making, which gave a man who had spent most of his military career in training or staff duties (or commanding the ceremonial detachment at Arlington cemetery), the first active combat command for American ground forces in the European Theatre.

In many ways he was the ideal candidate. He was a natural gruff soldier, far more intent on getting things done effeciently, than on being a posing media hungry prima-donna like Patton or Clarke. He certainly lacked the indecisiveness and incompetence that bedevilled so many of his contemporaries like Fredendall and Dawley and Lucas. He was a serious practitioner of the military arts, without thinking that ‘map skills’ or being a skilled football coach was adequate preparation for leading troops in combat, like Bradley and Eisenhower. And he never, ever treated his soldiers or officers with the contempt that was so much a part of MacArthur’s personality.

His experience began with learingn Commando tactics, and then training American officers and men in commando operations. From this the cavalry man came to the conclusion that the standards of fitness and movement required by US infantry in general were unsuitable for modern warfare. From there on his troops were required to perform to the standards similar to the Roman Legions in covering ground, and his standard speed of advance became referred to in the army as the ‘Truscott Trott’.

He became the first senior American officer in Europe to observe amphibious warfare combat techniques, when he accompanied the Dieppe raid. (An operation that, although unsuccessfu, he always felt taught lessons vital to all later amphibious operations…)
It was to stand him in good stead, because from that point on he was the man at the pointy end for the American invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy (twice) and France.

Off Casablanca, he came face to face with a potentially much greater disaster than Dieppe. As a Brigadier General his small invasion force was still supposedly in communication silence when a force of four French warships – his biographer (H. Paul Jeffers - Command of Honor) claims cruisers, but then quotes Truscott as giving a name (the Lorraine) of a Battleship that was under British control in Alexandria at the time – cruised slowly through the vulnerable invasion craft, and even signalled a warning that the troops on shore were aware the Americans were coming. Had these warships been interested in fighting, Truscott’s war would have ended right there.

The remainder of the operation introduced him to the issues of command and control of invasion forces, and no doubt left him very grateful that he was only facing a very half hearted French effort rather than the German professionals. Every problem of communication and supply that were to bedevill later operations were given a trial run. His comments on the effectiveness of naval support… they withdrew “halfway to South America”… were particularly bitter.

As a result of his success, Truscott was made a Major General, which meant that, as an equal/potential competitor, Patton would not be willing to have him in his command any more. Patton suggested his choices were to return to the US, or go to Algiers and try to get another job from Ike. Naturally he chose the second.

Eisenhower initially appointd him as a deputy commander, to set up a forward headquarters near the front where Ike could try and get the Americans and French to co-operate with the British on a new attack. But even as he started to get organised, Rommell decided to give the Americans a lesson in how offensives (or at least limitd spoiling operations) should be done, at Kasserine Pass. So Truscott’s most important task for Eisenhower during this period was to report that Fredendall should be relieved, preferably by Patton.

By the time Patton arrived, Truscott was off to take over 3rd Division, and prepare it for the invasion of Sicily. He trained the division most thouroughly for the operation, and fortunately they faced little serious opposition. Nonetheless Truscott led them at a pace, and with an effeciency, that left even the armoured division in his wake. His infantry division produced the outstanding performance of the Sicily campaign.

As a result he got to lead 3rd division again in the hard fought Salerno landing, and later in the breakout to Cassino, and then again in the desperate Anzio landings. He did comment that naval suppport was clearly improving with every invasioin experience, but that did nothing to make up for command problems on the ground. Things went so wrong at Anzio that Truscott was appointed to relieve the commander of VIth Corps (a US army formation that often included British or allied units), and spent months rebuilding the units before the eventual breakout. (Where he apparently attempted to inform General Alexander when Clarke re-routed the forces – meant to cut off the German Xth armies escape – against Alexander’s specific orders. Clarke managed to prevent this, but Truscott was clearly appalled by Clarke’s pursuit of vainglory, particularly at the cost of stupid military decisions.)

After rest and refit, he led VI Corps again in Dragoon - the invasion of Southern France – and here he was finally satisfied with the excellent co-operation and skill of the (Royal) Navy. (Though he was never entirely satisfied with tactical air support from his own air-force.) Fortunately by this time the Germans had already had orders to try and escape France if possible, so he finally had a chance to experience proper maneouvre warfare, without the need for a grinding and bloody breakout first.

From there he was called back to command 5th Army in Italy when Clarke was put in charge of the Allied Army Group. It was with mixed feelings that he reported back. He clearly didn’t want to lose the energetic sweep of th French camapign to be tied bak to the slow slog of the Italian one, and he now had to suffer repeated show pony performances while Clarke attempted to milk the media. On the other hand he was in charge of the most international of ‘American’ forces. (7th ‘American’ Army in France had consisted of 2 American and 8 French divisions, but that only made it a minority ‘American’ force. 5th ‘American’ Army in Italy almost always had more British and allied troops in it than American, a constant problem to Clarke whose attempt to avoid having any British troops at all enter Rome was the final straw for many of the foreign officers serving under him.)

Truscott was the ideal man to make a polyglot force work. British, South African, Polish, Italian, Brazilian and other troops were all equally acceptable to him. He worked hard with all of them, and did his best to help the units that were failing. (When the US 92nd ‘Black’ division repeatedly failed, he worked to reduce its weaknesses, and eventually rebuilt it by combining the best troops from the division in a single Regiment, and importing the Nisei (Japanese) regiment, and troops collected from anti-aircraft commands, to make it a tougher proposition.) He was reportedly respected and appreciated by all who served under him. (A more complete contrast to Clarke could not be imagined, and the morale of the whole Army must have benefitted enormously.)

After the final breakthrough and collapse of the Germans, he had a second chance at maneouvre warfare, and again performed well with his mixed command. The German surrender saw an Army Commander at the height of his powers. (And one who had overcome his reluctance at having to command Corps leaders who were senior to him, and fully justified the confidence of his superiors.) In fact when the failing Patton had to be replaced for political (and possibly sanity) reasons after the end of the war, Truscott was dragged back from an administrative command to take over 3rd Army and command the occupation forces in his part of Germany. Naturally he was a vastly superor choice for such a peacetime/administrative role in an occupied country than the unfortunate Patton. (Who died as the result of an accident soon after.)

After the war he was invalided out with a heart condition, but was soon recalled to head the Army studies on amphibious warfare. An excellent responsibility for the army's leading amphibious practitioner.

A second period of retirement was then cut off when he was appointed to run the new CIA operations in Europe, and later became deputy head of the CIA, in charge of such things as spying and coups (though apparently he objected to assassination).

The last is little reported, and there is scant information about his actual activities, but it does go to demonstrate his flexibility and trustworthiness. Two vital characteristics in a profession of arms that was often noted for inflexible dinosaurs (several of whom Truscott had replaced during his war career).

So how do we assess Lucien Truscott?

Frankly he was one of the, if not the, best American generals of the war. (Possibly of any of the Allied generals.) This was partly due to his outstanding natural abilities and willingness to be flexible and learn: and partly due to being in the right place at the right time.

It would be unfair to sugest that this was pure luck. He made it to Mountbatten’s command only partly on the amusing note of being a fellow Polo player. He was also obviously in the short list before this may have swung it in his favour.

From there he simply had he slow and careful build up of experience that so many other generals never got. He saw amphibious action going wrong (Dieppe), before being given a chance to make one that could have gone wrong turn out somewhat better (Morocco). He than got to observe how much tougher the Germans were (Kasserine), before leading a somewhat more successful invasion (Sicily) with troops that he actually got to train to his standards. He then had the luck to mainly face Italians, so that the 3rd division could become a well oiled machine before going head to head with serious German opposition in his third (Salerno) and fourth (Anzio) invasions. By the time he went into his fifth invasion and breakout (France), he was completley ready to achieve excellent results even with less experienced troops. (The fact that the navy was ready to do it right too, and the Germans already on the run, didn’t hurt.) Finally he led an army in the smashing and pursuit of the last remnants of serious German opposition in Italy. Even his post war command of an army of occupation in Germany must have been made incomparably easier by his experience leading the most polyglot army in the US inventory.

In fact a more perfect training regime for the production of a good solid and experienced general could hardly have been imagined. He led battalioins, regiments, divisions, corps and armies in combat, interspersed with staff duties where he mixed with the Allies highest commanders (a useful addition that few other generals came close to), and observed his seniors mistakes. Virtually no other major American commander had half the practice and experience he did.

It is not unfair to suggest that many other generals who failed might have done much better had they gone through his experiences on the way to commanding large units.

On the other hand much of his success also comes down to him. He was a really solid trainer and commander, from Truscott’s Trott to his detailed rehearsals for invasions. Despite having to repeatedly take over from officers who had failed in one way or another (Lucas - twice, Fredendall, Clarke, even Patton), he had phenomenal success, and always rebuilt the morale and fighting integrity of the units. He got on with soldiers regardless of race or nationality, and was certainly one of the top ‘Allied’ generals in the way he treated, and was responded to, by his troops.

In fact, as an all round performer, Lucian Truscott (Jr) was certainly one of the top ten generals on the Allied side, and possibly the best American general of the war.

9 comments:

  1. He was a great General...But selling Patton short is ostrich/sand comedy. Aside from the Russians, Patton was the best thing the Allies had in fighting the Germans. We had numerous great Generals, and by "great" I mean..They did their jobs. I'm not sure there was a perfect General anywhere in the War. Bernard Montgomery is considered by Britain as a "Great General" but every book I ever read he is depicted as insolent, insubordinate, slow to move, almost incompetent with the exception of El Alamein. So let's be easy on who's "Great" and who's not. Jim Talbot Baton Rouge, Louisiana

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  2. Dear Jim,

    Montgomery was an arrogant, self righteous, pompous person, who I would hate to have to sit down to diner with. But he was a great general.

    Patton had the easiest ride of any general in his landings in North Africa (where the French didn't want to fight), Sicily (where the Italians were desperate to surrender and he never faced any Germans), and France (where he only got into action after the Germans had effectively collapsed and were already running).

    I do believe he was a faster and more efficient person at pushing the advance here than most others, but he gets too much credit for what was really a very easy ride.

    His first real fight was at the Metz, where he failed… badly.

    Next spring he got a nice easy cruise into Germany (and could well have gone to Berlin or liberated Czechoslovakia if Eisenhower had not been keen to prevent this).

    By contrast his underappreciated high point was in predicting, and responding well to, the Bulge. That is where he reaches the rank of 'great'. I would rank that up there with his negotiations with the French in North Africa as his two greatest achievements…. (In fact I wish he had been negotiating the Italian surrender from his pragmatic prospective, rather than leaving it to incompetent fools like Eisenhower and Eden to screw it up. Ah well.)

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  3. Now that so many books on WWII exist and we have the benefit of great distance and objectivity, we can detect several patterns in the selection of generals.

    1) West Point graduates had the inside track, probably due to their relationships with Marshall and Eisenhower. The old-boy network. When these guys messed up, they were frequently protected by Marshall and Eisenhower.

    2) The system was slow to recognize and promote officers from less privileged backgrounds.

    3) So many important command decisions were influenced by emotion, vain-glory, hunches. So many generals were not analytic thinkers or doers

    4) Many did not have the basic skills of good generalship: map reading skills, rapport with subordinates, the ability to recognize the need for regular check ups on all subordinate commands, an overall feel for tactics and strategy, the ability to work with other services: Naval & Air Force, objectivity.

    One general who did demonstrate these qualities served directly under Clark's command at Anzio – Lucian Truscott.

    After reading the exhaustively researched first two books of Rick Atkinson's trilogy, Truscott stood out from the rest. He wasn't a glory hog, he was analytical and a doer. He was proactive before the term was invented; he was a realist.

    From what I've read about Truscott in a wide variety of sources, I agree he was the best general of the war.

    Truscott was the one who let Gen. Fred Walker explore the breakout route from Anzio to Valmontone and Highway 6, so ably recounted in Atkinson's "The Day of Battle" — Chapter, "The Cuckoo's Song." Had this been properly exploited — Clark letting Truscott cut off the retreating Germans — lives would have been saved and the bloody Italian campaign shortened. No need to take my word for it, Interested parties should read Atkinson's account, which it seems has only recently come to light. I have not been able to find it in any previous account, not even in Truscott's own biography, "Command of Honor."

    One incident in that book that I found indicative of his abilities at breaking down a situation proactively happened after he relieved Lucas at Anzio. His command had intercepted a German communication pointing to a Nazi offensive to be launched the following morning. Not able to trust the intercepted message 100%, he nonetheless assembled his staff and asked them to come up with a plan for an artillery barrage the next morning. Because he had reconnoitered the terrain so well, his staff was able to pinpoint possible staging areas for the German assault. And even though the front was many miles long, he believed it would be worth it, in case the attack did take place, to hit those areas with a barrage, which he did at the appointed hour.

    The offensive did take place, but it wasn't until after the battle that they were able to determine whether the barrages had had any effect. And they had, his preemptive initiative thus saving the lives of many VI Corps men.

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    1. Dear anonymous (Sept 2)

      Agree with your points.

      I think your point 4 is particularly interesting. Map reading served no point when Patton, Bradley and Eisenhower could read the terrain approaching the Metz, but failed to note that the 'forts' on the map had withstood the entire German Army for years in WW1.

      But it was the inability to co-operate, not just with other services, but with their allies, or sometimes between their own armies, that was the worst problem.

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    2. Another quality he demonstrated was accountability. He set goals, enunciated them clearly, demanded they be met, gave his subordinates the opportunity to achieve them, even extended a chance for an explanation if the goal was not met, and then lowered the boom quickly if no circumstances extenuated.

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    3. Absolutely, the very best generals were trainers and developers of other leaders, as well as leaders themselves.

      My own version of leadership is to assume that if someone fails the first time, it is because i have not trained them well enough. I try to work closely with them for long enough to make sure they know what is needed. If they still fail, then I cut them loose.

      the author of 'Eisenhower's Leiutenant's' quotes several American generals as saying that many Americans were bad at mentoring, and too many generals were dumped too fast. (He also quotes examples of some British leaders giving some of their generals too many chances, and points out that is bad too.)

      On this basis people like Truscott, Slim, Montgomery and Brooke were far better generals than Percival, Anderson, Clarke, MacArthur or Eisenhower.

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  4. Fuck Patton and Eisenhower. Truscott would kick their little asses

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