Saturday, February 20, 2016

The General Needs a Break

There is an excellent, if somewhat accidental, section on Generalship in one of Tom Clancy’s earliest and best books Red Strom Rising (from the Cold War period he understood, not the post Cold War world he doesn’t have a clue about).

His Soviet ‘hero’, Pavel Leonidovich Alekseyev, the Deputy Commander of the Southwest Front is exhausting himself preparing troops for battle, when his boss points out that in actual combat, hard learned experience would ensure that senior officers get enough regular rest to allow them to make good and clear decisions. Pavel admits the point, and is fast asleep before his vehicle gets back to HQ. 

The implication being that this common sense approach by his superior is what leaves Pavel functional at the critical point a few weeks later when everyone else’s responses are lethargic and doctrinal.
It is an excellent point for short term command decisions, but equally important for the long term durability of generals.

Historically, generals can function in the heat of battle successfully for months at a time… as long as they get sufficient rest during proceedings, and then a significant break before taking on the next major battle. But any general, no matter how good, will reach a point of decline in health, morals, leadership and decisiveness, if he tries to stay at peak performance for too long.

In his 20’s Alexander the Great made himself function for months at a time over several years… but the decline towards the end was very obvious. His men wanted out and his officers were revolting (literally as well as figuratively).

Napoleon achieved similar results as a younger man, but the sick old man who returned to power – lasting barely 100 days before spiraling out of control – was in no shape to command at Waterloo.
Worse is the list of previously great generals who were far too old when thrust back into command. Petain, the great hero of France of the Great War, was representative of too many old generals as a washed out shell in World War Two. Kitchener and Cardigan are other samples, and I am sure you can think of many more.

The number of generals, particularly junior generals, who drove themselves to physical collapse, is also well recorded in history. In World War Two, any numbers of generals were incapacitated at crucial moments, from Germans on the Eastern front, to Australians in New Guinea. In North Africa alone, physical or mental collapses by: Cunningham (General not Admiral), Gott, Rommel, Stumme, Rommel again, Gort, and a number of lesser generals, were reflective of overwork and exhaustion. 

Admiral Pound and Genreal Dill both died in harness, and both were clearly performing far less than optimally towards the end of their service. And then there is Roosevelt...

Wavell too was exhausted when he left the Middle East, and his lack of rest before being thrown into the ABDA command was a large part of the cause of some of the disasters there.

In the very short term, days, or at most weeks: adrenaline can keep most people functioning way beyond normal timespans… but the term is functioning. Performing it is not. Reactions slow, thought processes slow, creativity craps out, reflexive action becomes default, deeper reflection stops. Any sensible soldier would prefer a well-rested and thoughtful general in charge, which is why even Communist armies eventually learned to give up on idealistic claptrap and assign batmen and cooks and other support staff to their officers if they wanted any success at all.

Montgomery’s practice of going to bed at a reasonable hour and telling his staff not to wake him unless it was an emergency… and probably not then if there was nothing useful he could do about it: is an excellent example of a general maintaining his usefulness to his men in combat . It is particularly relevant to a 3 or 4 star general that someone commanding a Corps or Army – or even Army Group – should have distance and perspective.

On the other hand Montgomery was clearly emotionally exhausted by the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and in need of rest at that point. His ever increasing isolation at his forward tactical headquarters was starting to have a detrimental effect on his control of this Army Group, and both the failure to concentrate on Antwerp and the inadequate co-ordination of the Market-Garden operation were not up to the standards he had set himself in North Africa, Sicily, or at D-Day.

This leads to the interesting point that although Eisenhower was right to leave Montgomery in charge for the completion of the D-Day/Normandy campaign, he may have been right to not leave him as ground forces commander after the exhausting battle of Normandy was over. (In a similar fashion, Lee had undoubtedly been right to believe that Slim needed a rest after the conquest of Burma before preparing the next major operation… a fact pretty much proved by Slim’s unusually emotional response to being ‘sacked’.)

Mind you Eisenhower was wrong to imagine he could be his own Ground Forces commander at the same time as running the theatre as a whole; dealing with international and inter-service rivalries; and negotiating with difficult allies and collapsing enemies.

He was wrong for two reasons.

First, that no one man could do Eisenhower’s real job and still be a useful ground forces commander (which is why every single other theatre – even quite small and relatively simple ones like Burma or New Guinea –separated the roles).

Second, Eisenhower was already a chain smoking and exhausted wreck, who himself had failed to cope with the stresses of the Normandy campaign, and desperately needed a rest.

When I raise with people the idea that too much was being attempted by too few for too long, the initial reaction is, far too often’ ‘there was no choice’!


Montgomery or Slim were no more ‘the vital and irreplaceable man’ than Eisenhower or MacArthur. There were certainly many choices.

Bradley spent the first part of the Normandy campaign as an Army Commander, and was then promoted to Army Group Commander. See, simple choice. He could just as easily, and probably more sensibly, have been left as an Army commander, under Devers or Patton as Army Group Commander. (He probably would have been better if not promoted too far too fast).

Or, the invasion army – 1st – could have been rested while 3rd and 9th armies did the pursuit, and brought up – reinforced and refreshed – when the advance ran out of steam a few months later. 

Patton's 'sulk' during the Metz stalemate, Hodges apparent physical collapse at the Bulge, and Bradley's increasingly irrational responses there and later: show how even a few months in unrelieved combat can have straining effects. Similarly Crerar's enforced 'rest' allowing Simpkin to excel.

Meanwhile after the breakout Alexander could have taken over as Ground Forces commander for the pursuit phase, leaving Montgomery a few months of recuperation to tackle the breakthrough fighting on the German frontier. Perhaps General Bernard Paget (the commander of the British Home Army who had trained the units for the invasion) could have taken over 21st Army Group for the pursuit. Or perhaps he could have been brought in for Ground Forces if Alexander was too vital in Italy? (Or Wilson, or Wavell, or Lavarack, or Devers, or Slim, or Eichelberger, or…. Plenty of choices.)

The simple fact is that Ike and Monty were tired, and both were working at less than peak performance. As Pavel Alekseyev’s superior would have noted, both needed a break.

It is an unfortunate truth that Western Democracies are terrible at giving generals a break to refresh. The Germans and Soviets and even Japanese rotated Army and Army Group commanders around all over the place, regularly pulling them back to ‘reserve’, and regularly re-assigning them to a new position a few months later. The British and Americans however, usually tried to persevere with the same leader until he failed… and I do mean ‘until’, because even the best ones – Wavell comes to mind – slowly lose ground over repeated years of stress, and eventually have to be sacked.

Alan Brooke, on the brink of being appointed British CIGS, was not opposed to the replacement of Wavell in 1941, but felt it ridiculous to ‘sack’ him. Brooke wanted him bought home for a few months rest and recuperation before re-assignment. But Churchill didn’t want him in London where he might cause trouble, and banished him to India… Unfortunately there he was thrown straight back into a role as CIC India, and was barely getting on top of that when he was dragged back into service against the Japanese WITHOUT the benefit of having had a few months rest.

There is no doubt that if Brooke had given him 6 months off, Wavell would have been in much better shape for another active role later in the war. Wavell as either Supreme or Land Forces commander of the invasion of North Africa (or Italy) is by no means unrealistic. Wavell as Churchill’s representative to Stalin (he spoke superb Russian) would have been fascinating. Wavell on the Combined Chiefs of Staff is harder to imagine, but not impossible. But Wavell – unscarred by ‘sacking’ – taking over as CIGS if Brooke had been released for field command in 1944 – in France or Italy or Asia – was also possible.

Which leads us to Brooke and Churchill.

Brooke had carried the can for Allied strategy from November 1941 to the invasion of Italy in 1943, and both needed and deserved a break. There is no doubt that he had achieved his greatest impact on the war by steering Allied strategy successfully to the point where the surrender of Italy and clearing of the Mediterranean had finally made an invasion of France possible. His strategic impact was already in decline by that point (partly because most of the strategy to see out the was already set, and partly because Marshall and and others just didn’t want to be steered by him anymore): but it is arguable that this decline in influence was at least as much because of increasing tiredness as anything else.

Brooke needed a break, and to be re-assigned to a fresh job where he could do most good. Preferably six months off before taking over as Supreme Allied Commander for the Invasion of France; but also possibly as SAC Med if Alexander continued to serve as Ike’s Land Forces Commander; or as SAC South East Asia to deal with Burma, Malaya and the East Indies.

Either way Brooke’s impact on the war might have been increased, and his replacement as CIGS might have brought in renewed perspectives and energy.

The same applies, I am afraid, to Churchill. He too needed a break for a few months between the surrender of Italy and the invasion of France. This would of course have been much harder for a politician than for a military man, but it ids nonetheless true. One of the reasons Churchill was so shattered by his loss of the 1945 general election was his exhaustion… and in fact one of the reasons for that loss was his exhaustion. Had he been able to take a few months off in late 1943 or early 1944, he would have faced the end of the war with renewed energy. (And faced the almost inevitable loss of the following election with far more realism and stoicism.)

It is hard to imagine how such a break could have been managed under a system where it was not understoof that generals needed breaks. But it is interesting to imagine how it might have worked had that principle been understood. If the CIC of the British military – King George VIII – had been in the habit of accepting rest periods for his generals, it is easier to imagine him suggesting (or even ordering) rest periods for his Prime Ministers! An amusing side thought, but certainly not beyond the realms of possibility in the Westminster system…

Eisenhower is another person who desperately needed a rest. He went from running the invasion of North Africa, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); to running the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); straight to running the invasion of France, and the resulting political settlements there (while imagining he could simultaneously deal with the military issues): without much of a break. This was extremely foolish, and arguably had a very negative effect on Allied operations in France, and on the political outcome in Europe (which saw much of central Europe unnecessarily fall to the Soviets).

In fact it is hard to imagine that anything except exhaustion affecting his judgement could have led him to imagine he could suddenly combine both the political and military roles effectively, when his previous history had seen such poor outcomes when he tried to concentrate on a single job. It is possible that he had such an outbreak of overwhelming hubris and arrogance that he might have tried to do the same thing even if rested… but lets be kind and suggest that his decision sounds more like exhaustion overcoming common sense.

Again, he needed a good few months break – preferably at home resting in the US – before being re-assigned to D-Day: rather than being thrown straight back in. He was clearly approaching an exhausted nervous wreck by the time the invasion began, and his testy and emotional responses to any delays, countered by his delirious over confidence when things seemed to be going well: give a poor impression of someone at their best performance.

Paget should have been left to plan the invasion while Ike rested. If Ike was to command, he should have taken over fresh a few weeks before operations began, to have a chance to make it to the end of the war. As it was, he may have been right to think Monty needed less responsibility after the Normandy breakout, but he was clearly wrong to imagine he could handle everything thereafter. The directionless wandering of his broad front ‘strategy’ was only exceeded by his failures to grasp that the end goal of the war was a stable political settlement in Europe.

In that of course he reflected his boss, Marshall, who was one of the old fashioned ‘just win and go home’ generals. He clearly had no comprehension that ‘just going home’ might mean you had to come back again later… He clearly never understood that his ‘political’ solutions would just mean that the US had to ‘come back’ in NATO, or to in Korea, or Vietnam, or… well you get the idea. (This lack of understanding was in fact a terrible misreading of his own nations history in such matters. A 19th century British diplomat had once questioned an American ambassador on the US’s habit of repeatedly invading Central American countries, demanding open elections, and going home. “What do you do when the election gets a result you don’t like?”. “Oh, we just invade again.”)

It is hard to say whether Marshall’s failings at the crucial ‘make a balanced peace’ part of the war were just his limited understanding of how international relations worked, or a sign of him being exhausted too. Charitably, it would be nice to suggest that it was at least partially caused by overtiredness and irritability. Certainly his far wiser approach to the Marshall Plan indicates that he could do better on international understanding… though perhaps that was a hard learned lesson. But the problem with ‘resting’ Marshall at any point was that his CIC – Roosevelt – was by that time so sick that he wouldn’t have felt secure to take the risk of a change even if he had had the insight to believe it might be useful.

The real pity of this is that the Allies did have quite excellent samples of how it could work. On a small scale, Wavell had lasted as long as he did in the Middle East by making a couple of trips to London, and leaving another general (Blamey) to run things while he was gone. It worked fine.
For the invasion of Sicily various generals – including Patton – were pulled out of front line roles to prepare for the next operation.

Montgomery himself twice – North Africa and France – pulled Horrocks out of the line for a rest in preparation for future operations... If only he'd accepted the same applied to himself!

In Macarthur’s command (partly accidentally given the Australian vs American confusion) this became a regular practice of a new general overseeing each operation, and the rested general having a break before preparing the next operation.

MacArthur sort of continued this pattern even with just American generals like Eichelberger and Krueger swapping with 6th and 8th armies respectively from Buna to the Philippines.

More significantly, 3rd  and 5th Fleets perfected the idea of one Admiral running an operation while the other takes a break and then prepares the next operation.

That’s the way to do it!

The general lack of imagination by the Allied command systems in deciding who needed a rest when, is responsible for two significant issues.

1)    Good generals being sacked and discarded for being overtired, when a little R&R would see them back fresh, experienced, and continuing to develop. And
2)    Tired generals making mistakes that increased casualties and lengthened the war.

It is simply not possible to estimate the damage done to the Allies and to the world, by the unwillingness to give good leaders desperately needed breaks.


  1. When and how did the Russians and Germans learn to rotate their generals? Was it from experince in WW1 or through practice in WW2. What about the Japanese?

    1. Germans both, Russians mainly WWII (as had virtually no WWI experience left, and had massive losses of generals early in WWII anyway).

      In fact the German 'fuhrer' reserve saw generals regularly pulled out and 'rested'... though in fact many were out of political favour for those periods. Most were still re-used later, and most of those were better off for the rests.

      A really simple example is Rommel, who was pulled for medical leave on a a couple of occasions, rested in Germany, and re-assigned - i.e. to northern France.

  2. Just as a matter of interest you are being massively misquoted over on Spacebattles again!

    They do seem to have missed the whole point of your blogs title.
    Admittedly the "Yay Murica" tends to be very strong on that forum but one of detractors actually professes ignorance to the term "Cruiser Tank", which tends to invalidate his comments a little?

    1. They do seem to spend a lot of time saying little of note. Can't say much of it seems new (or indeed any of it is info I don't already comment on in the articles they are claiming to have read...)

      As long as they're enjoying themselves, good luck to them.

  3. A lot of sense here eg totally agree Slim should have gone back to London after the end of the Burma campaign

    However it is the practicalities that get in the way of the theoretically perfect:
    When should it happen? there never is a good time in an ongoing campaign
    How should it be justified? A general disappearing from his command could be taken badly. A trip to London/Washington makes sense for a lot of theatres, but not for NW Europe.
    Who should take over? Either a good chief of staff (Bedell Smith maybe, but probably not de Guigand) or a subordinate stepping up (as Simonds did for Crerar.
    Who makes the decision? Has to be the immediate superior, but it is fraught with danger eg see Slim!

    1. Agree.
      Actually the interesting thing is that the British did this better earlier in the war, and worse later. Perhaps that reinforces that the guy at the top (Brooke) also needed a break by late 1944?

  4. Agreed.
    Interesting to note that the British did this better in 1941-3 than in 44-5.
    Perhaps that shows that the guy at the top (Brooke) also needed a break by late 44?

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  6. About Eisenhower:

    I recently caught a 2012 BBC documentary, World War Two: 1942 and Hitler's Soft Underbelly, by David Reynolds. His thesis is that Churchill's Mediterranean strategy was born of his intent to preserve the empire and, while the early results (North Africa) were beneficial overall, the invasion of Italy was an avoidable disaster and meant mostly to destroy a rival to the empire. And, his attempt to put off the Normandy invasion and instead to use British troops to pick off German held islands in the Mediterranean led to FDR and Stalin's marginalization of him.

    This might explain in part why Eisenhower could not have been "rested" in favor of Paget. FDR was not about to give the Brits the lead.

    What do you think?

    1. What do I think of Reynold's. Not much.

      Other places in this blog I discuss how I find Australian historians 'poor us' fixation, British historians 'evil us' fixation, and American historians 'uncritisisable us' fixations all equally ghastly.

      For the benefit of the truly slow (like Reynolds?), I will state again that an invasion of France was not possible until Italy was out of the war and the Mediterranean available to save the allies millions of tons of shipping a year. (Though I do think the long slow fight all the way up the peninsula was stupid and wasteful.)

      For the benefit of the truly stupid (like Reynolds?) I will repeat that I am glad Churchill kept Greece out of Soviet hands despite Roosevelt's best efforts, and wish he had managed to convince Ike to do the same for some of the rest of central Europe.

      For the benefit of the truly incompetently innocent (like Reynolds?), I will repeat that Stalin played Roosevelt like a violin, and managed to get almost everything he wanted (Greece excepted) out of it.

      It saddens me that people like Reynolds seem to let their prejudices overcome such simple concepts.

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