(Another 'what if' to stir debate. Stirring the pot as usual... hope you enjoy it.)
Whenever I do a post on 'rating' this general, or that general: the comments usually come down to 'but at this battle they failed, whereas at this battle such and such succeeded'. These comments almost always try to compare apples with oranges, suggesting that someone good at open field pursuit with little opposition, would have done better at an invasion than someone brilliant at tight defensive battles who never commanded a successful advance. In fact the opposite would be more likely, with someone who has good knowledge of how to fight tight engagements probably much better at an invasion than someone who had only ever pursued broken enemies with loose formations in open spaces. Their specific knowledge bases are probably more important than the fact that one had possibly seen only victory, and the other only defeat.
The truth is that any successful high command should maximise the chances of success of any campaign by choosing the 'best fit' for the job.
But that is not how generals were chosen for D Day.
(I would love to start with divisional commanders, but there are way to many, so for space I will start with Corps and Army commanders, and work up to the top).
The outstanding Canadian of the campaign for instance was Guy Simonds. Described by many as the best Allied Corps commander in France, and credited with re-invigorating the Canadian Army HQ when he filled in while his less successful superior Harry Crerar was sick, Simonds was undoubtedly the standout Canadian officer in both Italy and France.
He was however, the youngest Canadian division, corps or army commander, and the speed of his promotions pushed him past many superiors. He was also described as 'cold and uninspiring' even by those who called him 'innovative and hard driving'. It can be taken as a two edged sword that Montgomery thought he was excellent (presumably implying Montgomery like qualities?) But his promotions seemed more related to ability than cronyism, and his achievements were undoubted.
Should he have been the Canadian Army commander instead of Crerar? Yes. Arguments against were mainly his lack of seniority, and lack of experience. but no Canadian had more experience, and lack of seniority was no bar in most of the other Allied armies.
It comes down to the simple fact that the Allied cause would have been better served by having Simonds in charge of Canadian forces than Crerar.
The most interesting British Corps commander was Neil Ritchie. Interesting because he had previously been given unexpected command of Eighth Army at a crucial point of the desert war, and been sacked for failing in this role. In fact his appointment from HQ officer over the heads of many senior battlefield commanders in 1942 had been supposed to be a temporary one, and Brooke had been appalled at such a junior officer being thrown in way over his head and 'damaged'. Once sacked, he was returned to England, where Brooke carefully built him back up through divisional and then corps command, to make him ready for re-entering the war at an appropriate level.
Few would say that Ritchie was the most brilliant corps commander on the allied side, but he did a much better job than many of his contemporaries. His 'reconditioning' proved to be a worthwhile development (underlining how his earlier failure reflects more on his superiors than on him).
Was he the right man for the job? Yes, both due to his undoubted (if painful) past experience, and to his natural ability which had overcome such a past.
As an interesting comparison Gerard Bucknall was sacked as commander of the British XXX Corps during the campaign by the man who had appointed him, Montgomery again. Bucknall had served competently in North Africa, and impressed Montgomery as a divisional commander in Sicily and Italy, but Alan Brooke as CIGS felt that he was unsuitable as a Corps commander, and experience was to suggest that (as usual) Brooke was correct.
Montgomery sacked Bucknall for repeated failures during the breakout operations, and, fortunately, Brian Horrocks had recuperated enough from his North African injuries to take over and re-invigorate XXX Corps for the rest of the war. Brooke didn't hold this sacking against Bucknall, and appointed him commander of Northern Ireland for the rest of the war. Another example of accepting men at their ability levels, and not blaming them for being pushed beyond them.
Horrocks was definitely the right man for a corps command, as he had proved in North Africa, and was to prove again. If he had not been wounded (by a strafing fighter) at Tunisia, he might have been the right man to be army commander too. He certainly was by far the most experienced corps commander, having fought from Alemein to Tunisia, and then from Normandy to the Rhur. It is possible to suggest that he would have been a better commander of the British 2nd Army than Dempsey... if not for his being out injured for a critical year.
Another possibility for British 2nd Army commander was O'Connor, who instead served as commander of VIII Corps. O'Connor was THE outstanding corps commander of the first half of the war, with achievements in North Africa that only Patton came close to matching later. Of course both O'Connor and Patton achieved their most dramatic successes against the Italians, not against the Germans, but both are masters of high speed manoeuvre.
Having said that, O'Connor also succeeded in breaking fortified lines several times in North Africa – a role that Patton notably failed in at the Metz (though we might note that O'Connor faced Italians, and Patton Germans). So O'Connor had been a brilliant Corps commander before most other Allied generals had led a division, and might have been considered a better choice for Army command too.
Unfortunately O'Connor had spent two years in captivity during the middle of the war, and there is some doubt that he was up to even corps command in France. He certainly performed competently – who with his experience would not have – but he lacked the fire of his previous command.
It is also possible that freewheeling corps commander was actually his metier, and army command might have been beyond him? perhaps if he had not had those two years in captivity he may have developed into a good army commander. But he did, and thus he didn't.
Was he the right man in the right place? He was certainly a safe pair of hands, and it was sensible to give him a key role at the start. He proved uninspiring after that, and it was perhaps also sensible to replace him with better goers later. An interesting debate could trend either way, but all in all it was probably sensible to rely on his experience until others proved themselves.
'Lightning Joe' Collins was one of the best of the American corps commanders for the campaign in France, not only through natural ability, but through sheer experience. He commanded the 25th Division on Gudalcanal and then on New Georgia before transferring to Europe to provide a bit of genuine combat experience, and he commanded VII Corps throughout the campaign extremely competently. He was a prime example of using safe and experienced hands to lead new or inexperienced troops into combat. His leadership of Operation Cobra finally allowed inexperienced US units to break experienced (if depleted) German troops, and converted the Normandy siege into the great trans-France pursuit.
Definitely one of the best men for the job in France.
By contrast Leonard Gerow proved to be very competent despite his lack of combat experience. A contemporary of Bradley (who was second to him in the Advanced Course at Infantry School) and Eisenhower (who was his study partner at Command and General Staff school), there was no reason he could not have finished senior to both, rather than staying a corps commander for his few months of operations. Such is fate.
But he turned out to be a good choice for his role, and proved a safe pair of hands despite his inexperience. A man who might have been a good army commander with more experience.
Interestingly Charles Corlett did not bring XIX corps into action until after the invasion was successful. This is fascinating because he had commanded two successful invasions in the Pacific – Kisku, which proved to be a non event because the Japanese had left, and the much tougher Kwajalein operation, often called 'the most nearly perfect' of all US invasions in the pacific war. Why such a proven invasion commander (he was later to be tasked with planning to invade Japan) was not used for the actual invasion is an interesting question. Clearly he might have been better at that than less experienced contemporaries?
Which raises the fundamental question, why was the single most experienced and successful American invader (North Africa, Sicily, Italy.. twice) Lucian Truscott, not brought up for the most important invasion of the war? He was a proven corps performer, with vastly greater experience than even the Pacific veterans, and deservedly got an army of his own in 1944. Not only was he the outstanding choice for a corps commander for an invasion, he would have been a vastly superior choice as Army commander to the less experienced (and less competent) Bradley or Hodges.
Admittedly he was pretty hotly engaged in Italy at the time. (And admittedly, his presence had repeatedly saved the situation when other less competent generals had screwed things up), but he was the standout invasion specialist in the US army. If Marshall genuinely believed that Italy was a wasted sideshow, and everything should be focused on France, his being left in the secondary theatre was a pretty strange choice.
Should he have been there? Definitely. Was it possibly helpful that one competent leader was left in 5th army? Probably. Perhaps we need to accept that the best available was simply not available?
There are other corps commanders, but lets move on to the army leaders.
Harry Crerar has been mentioned . Pedestrian might be an acceptable phrase. He was not completely incompetent, but he inspired no one, and his achievements were made to look poor in the few months that Simonds got to stir his command up. Was he the wrong man in the wrong place? Yes.
Miles Dempsey is interesting. Proved quite competent in the end, but hardly inspiring. The need to leave Leese with 8th army and Slim with 14th was probably necessary, and he certainly had a background with combined ops and invasions, but possibly more inspiring leaders were available (Horrocks and O'Connor have already been mentioned), but taking all things into consideration, Dempsey was possibly a safe choice form the dozen or so experienced corps commanders quite ready to run an army. His well organised and fast (200 miles in a single day) pursuit of the defeated Germans across France was actually faster than Patton achieved against considerably less opposition.
Was he the right man for the job? Well he was certainly a competent choice.
Which is quite a contrast to Courtney Hodges, who appears a fairly incompetent choice. He had flunked out of West Point as a young man before re-enlisting as a private and working his way up. As such his final role commanding US 1st Army is quite an achievement. However he led it into battle despite having no combat experience since leading a platoon for a couple of weeks of combat in WW1. He was astonishingly highly thought of by Eisenhower considering his lack of achievement, and Montgomery was at one point amazed to realise that US 1st army had 20+ divisions assigned (bigger than most army group HQ's could handle successfully) whereas US 9th army next door had less divisions assigned than most corps.
Hodges advance across France was nothing special, except for a fairly major disaster called 'the battle of the bulge', where his army survived more due to the individual toughness of a few units, than to any leadership from above. (Monty's contact officers arrived at his HQ to find it completely abandoned, but with all the maps still on the walls... When they finally chased him down, he had taken to his bed in what might have been considered a nervous collapse.)
Hodges next great effort was the disastrous battle of the Heurtgen Forest, one of the last great German defensive victories of the war, and an absolute bloodbath for American forces. (It was later excused on the 'vital need' to capture two damns... but that 'need' was not apparently discovered until the battle was almost over, and the recriminations already mounting.)
Did Hodges have the experience, or skill to run an army? There is little evidence that he did. Did he cause it enormously greater casualties than a more experienced general might have? Almost certainly inarguable. Was he the wrong man in the wrong place? Yes.
By contrast William Simpson might have been a good choice for 1st army, as he proved for 9th army when it came on line. A soldier with actual combat experience in the Philippines, and WW1, he proved a competent and safe pair of hands, particularly in reacting swiftly and smoothly to the Battle of the Bulge. He also worked very smoothly with the difficult Montgomery after that, and was highly rated by Monty as the most competent US general he dealt with during the war.
Should he have been given more experience before getting such a key position? Yes. Did he cope well considering his lack of experience? Very. Was he the right man for such a role? Probably not, but he performed well enough to deserve praise.
Alexander Patch was one of the few American army leaders who were promoted from experienced corps leaders who had seen a lot of combat. His efforts with a division and later corps on Guadalcanal meant he had experience to go with his role. He was hardly outstanding, but certainly a safe pair of hands for such a role. It is interesting that he got an army when Collins and Corlett did not, even though they probably had superior claims to him.
George Patton was of course the other army leader who had seen some actual combat, but that is the only thing you can say about him that won't cause debate. Personally I think he would have been a better choice for Army group commander than his ex-subordinate/now superior Bradley, but that is no great compliment to either.
Patton had a genuine 'nose' for assessing what was going on in combat. On the other hand I think he is hugely over-rated as an army commander, in that he was only ever successful in pursuit of defeated foes.
Despite the propaganda in the film about him, he had nothing to do with the Germans pulling back after Kasserine. He did get to swan around in Sicily collecting Italians who were lining up to surrender as fast as possible, and he also got to go on a scenic cruise through France when there was no opposition to his advance. He proved very competent at pushing such advances, and was happy to make or mend (or steal) anything to keep momentum going. With experience, he might have made a good all round general.
But his only real testing against an enemy prepared and willing to fight was at the Metz, where he failed dismally. Given that this came within days of his 'shit through a goose speech', the fact that he was stopped cold for months and could think of nothing to do about it (to the extent of eventually going to sulk in Paris for weeks), argues against him being a great general.
He was in the right place to lead the troops after the breakout, but he was probably too inexperienced in combat to be given a role that should have gone to Truscott or Collins or Corlett instead.
Wrong man for the job.
Jean De Lattre de Tassigny was definitely the right man. A very experienced combat professional, and one who had the honour of being described by his German opponent in 1940 as having led men who performed like those at Verdun in the previous war. He fought in North Africa, Sardinia, Italy, and France (and later was one of the few success stories in Vietnam), and was always efficient and effective. Right man for the job, and possibly a better candidate to command the US/French Army group than Devers.
Jacob Devers was the Army Group commander no one has heard of. Despite having run all US Army Armoured units for most of the war, he had no real combat experience before being thrown in to command an army group in the invasion of Southern France and the fight up to Germany. Despite being one of the best organisers and administrators and trainers available to the US Army, he had little background to deal with a combined US/French army group, and struggled to stay in charge of the French component (though many others might have too in the last months of the war).
Was he the right man for the job? Probably not. Certainly it is a shame to think how much better he would have been running Eisenhower's logistics than the appalling Lee turned out to be. His skills could have been better employed. But on the other hand, by the time he got into action there was little that he could have done to undermine things anyway.
Certainly a better man than his lack of recognition deserves, despite his lack of experience for such a role.
Omar Bradley is easier. Out of his depth.
He had been quite good running a corps in Sicily, against no opposition from Italians who wanted to surrender. But it can hardly be said that a month of such operations made him an experienced combat leader.
Perhaps if he had been left as an army commander he might have proved competent (with careful mentoring). But he had to be gently pushed to concentrate adequately to achieve things for the breakout, and then he operated like a junior corps commander directing traffic.
Was he experienced enough to run an army group? No. Was he good at it? No. Hodges was poor, Patton did as he liked, and Bradley's organisation and control failed to control them, let alone lead them. He wandered between sitting at Eisenhower's side whinging about not being able to communicate with most of his armies after being caught out at 'the battle of the bulge', to telling Patton he would 'stay away from the telephone' so Eisenhower couldn't order him to stop Patton's insubordination.
Bradley would have been an excellent divisional commander. With more practice, he looked like making a very good corps commander. He was an inexperienced and inadequate army commander. As Army group commander he was terribly out of his depth.
Montgomery... Oh God, Montgomery!
Montgomery was the most experienced, skilled and competent Army or Army Group commander in Europe (or indeed the world). He was absolutely the right person to be commanding an army, and seemed to be quite good at commanding an army group.
But he was not a good choice for 'Land Forces Commander'. He was simply the wrong personality to work with the group such a role needed to co-ordinate.
Nor did he have the strategic vision to relate a tactical campaign to the overall situation.
Having said that, having him as army group commander of the initial invasion, was probably sensible. It needed one strong experienced and unpanicked hand, and even Eisenhower and Bradley (hardly admirers) later admitted that invasion might not have worked at all without him.
And having him as land forces commander afterwards, despite his weaknesses and the trouble it would cause, would still have been better than not having one at all.
But not much.
(In fact his personality was so difficult he may well have caused almost as much damage as Eisenhower's HQ was managing anyway... If not adequately controlled... which meant NOT by eisenhower.)
Was Monty the right man in the right place? Yes. Did he NEED a strong commander? Yes. Did he get one? No. Was that his fault? .... Well again, don't blame a subordinate if his superiors stuff things up...
Monty was correct of course that someone had to do the job of land forces commander, and that it would be better to give it even to someone relatively incompetent like Bradley, than simply pretend it was not necessary.
In fact he would have been happy to have Ike's preferred choice, Alexander, who had never inspired Monty with confidence, but who at least knew what the job entailed, and had an unrivalled ability to get people to work together. (Yes, better than Ike's ability... much better.)
What was absolutely vital was someone who could concentrate on the land battle while the Supreme Commander played politics.
Who was qualified to be land forces commander? Bloody good question.
Alexander is the default choice. He had done it before, and made it work. Was he the best choice? No. too soft and conciliatory, and earlier in the war his juniors (Monty, Patton, Clarke) played him the way Patton later played Bradley. But there are signs that after a few years of experience he was maturing, and might have been up to the job. (Or at least more up to it than anyone else available.)
Who might have done it better? Alan Brooke of course. Possibly his successor at home army Bernard Paget, who, despite limited modern combat experience in Norway, had enormous experience training and organising the invasion armies. Or even Henry 'Jumbo' Wilson who, despite being thrown out of Greece, and running an uninspiring Syrian campaign before taking over 10th army, had at least seen modern combat on large fronts. Otherwise William Slim, the Australian John Lavarack, or perhaps even an experienced American army commander like Robert Eichelberger. Even the inexperienced Devers at lest had the managerial ability to get something done.
As Monty said, anyone would have been better than no one.
Which leaves Supreme Allied Commander.
Much is said about Eisenhowers great strengths. He certainly had buckets of charm, a great work ethic, and an unrivalled ability to co-ordinate disparate characters.
Less is said about his weaknesses. His charm hid ignorance of military affairs; his overwork reduced him to a nervous chain smoking wreck; and his attempts to jolly people along meant he failed to control (or sack) Lee, Patton, Montgomery, or anyone of the many others who eventually gave up on waiting for sensible leadership and just started doing their own thing. (That's unfair, he did threaten to sack Monty... once. Probably the only time of many he needed to make a stand that he actually did... and it would have achieved nothing if he had done it.)
It is inconceivable that anyone as inexperienced and unskilled at military operations as Eisenhower should have been left to play the role of land forces commander... or to pretend he was doing so given that no one actually did the job properly anyway. He did not have the knowledge, experience, or temperament, to command armies in the field.
So his first failure to be an adequate Supreme Commander is that he didn't understand he needed competent subordinates, run by a competent subordinate, and working to a competent plan.
Tens of thousands of casualties can be scored up to this fundamental failing.
So lets imagine for a minute that he had the sense to insist on having Alexander run things, and had concentrated on his actual job. Could he have been a success at being Supreme commander if he wasn't failing at ground forces commander?
Again, probably not. His failure to control or inspire his subordinates is evident from the above. But his failures in the geo-political sphere are even more depressing.
This was the man who had insisted an invasion of France was possible in 1942 when he was at war plans division, only to want to stop an invasion of Sicily in 1943 if 2 more German divisions showed up. This was the man who failed to convince the French leadership (in Gibraltar pre North Africa, in North Africa post that invasion, or in France post that invasion), or the Italian leadership (during surrender negotiations) to play ball in a sensible way. Combine that with his disastrous approach to abandoning Central Europe to the Russians when he could have saved much of it, and you get the impression that he should not have been playing politics at all.
(Which is amusing, because he turned out to be a much better President than he was a general.)
Again, who were better choices?
Again, Alan Brooke, obviously. A much, much more experienced combat leader, and corps, army, army group, and home army commander, with incredible geo-political skill and negotiating experience. (Also a French born, French speaking officer who had fought over very inch of Northern France in two wars.) More importantly, a man who Montgomery, and everyone else, absolutely obeyed, and whose tongue lashings they both feared and respected.
There is no chance that a campaign run by him would have had half the problems Eisenhower's HQ managed to create.
Anyone else? Well again, on the basis that if the person had concentrated on their real job, anyone was better than no one, the list of more experienced and competent generals/admirals (not saying much really), is pretty endless.... Alexander, Auchinlek, Blamey, Brooke, Cunningham, Devers, Mountbatten, Nimitz, Ramsay, Spatz, Wavell, Wilson, etc, etc.
So what would be the ideal listing?
Supreme Commander - Brooke
Deputy Commander - Eisenhower
Air Forces - Spatz
Naval Forces - Ramsay
Land Forces - Alexander
British/Canadian Army Group - Montgomery
American Army Group - Eichelberger
US/French Army Group - de Lattre de Tassigny
Canadian Army - Simonds
British Army - Dempsey
French Army - Koenig
9th US Army - Simpson
1st US Army - Corlett
3rd US Army - Collins
7th US Army - Patch
The weakest part of that list is Alexander who, as noted, may have been coming along anyway. (His final campaign in Italy was a masterpiece, so it appears he had learn't something).
But the key element is that with Brooke providing the brains and giving clear directions, Alexander would be free to co-ordinate operations. And no one, least of all Montgomery, was going to question Brooke's orders.
Would the war have finished quicker with that list? Yes.
Would there have been less casualties? Probably.
Would Central Europe have been saved from the Russians? Almost certainly.
Would more of Germany finished up in Western hands? Unlikely given pre-arrangements, but possibly.
Would the post war settlement have been better? Very likely.
Would German soldiers have had more chance to surrender to the West rather than fight to the end against the Russians? Definitely.
Was an earlier surrender, or even another coup attempt, more likely? Here's hoping.
But let's repeat the main one... Earlier finish with less casualties? Yes.
PS: Amusingly Patton too (had he got a guernsey as a corps or army commander) would have been delighted to have Brooke in charge. No chance of a broad front strategy, plenty of opportunity for 'blitzkrieg' tactics instead, and no chance of not pursuing the Germans into central Europe. Patton, who had the best geo-political sense of any American general except MacArthur, would have loved it!