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Eisenhower as Ground-Forces Commander: The British Viewpoint

By Murray, G. E. Patrick | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Eisenhower as Ground-Forces Commander: The British Viewpoint


Murray, G. E. Patrick, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


MUCH TO THE APPREHENSION of the British Chiefs of Staff (COS) and the disappointment of the British public, on September 1, 1944, the Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, officially took command of ground operations in France. Many in Britain perceived the step as a demotion for Britain's iconic soldier, General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, the commanding general of the British 21st Army Group, who had commanded the ground forces since the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, and continued to command on the main avenue of approach to the Ruhr and Berlin. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS), Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke, and Montgomery believed that Eisenhower prolonged the war by failing to concentrate against a single avenue of approach into Germany. By December 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill concluded that Eisenhower needed a deputy supreme commander who would control ground operations for him. Ironically, the German counteroffensive in the Ardennes made it politically impossible for Churchill to replace Eisenhower's deputy supreme commander, Air Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder, with Field Marshal Sir Harold R. G. L. Alexander. Having mortgaged their future to the Grand Alliance, the British concluded that the price for their strategic partnership with the United States was a succession of American military blunders.

By temperament and experience, Eisenhower was virtually a staff officer. He had heard no shots fired in anger until November 1942. Eisenhower ("Ike" to his close associates) had been graduated in the West Point Class of 1915, the class "the stars fell on" so-named because 57 of its 164 graduates became general officers. According to the closest student of Eisenhower's interwar career, Matthew F. Holland, Eisenhower's assignment to command the army heavy tank school that had been established on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, cost him his chance at combat in World War I. Yet it helped him graduate first in his class from the Command and General Staff School in 1926, where all tactical problems were drawn from the Battle of Gettysburg on which Eisenhower was an expert. During the interwar period Eisenhower obtained a political education, working in Washington for the assistant secretary of war and three chiefs of staff of the army. After serving under General Douglas MacArthur for seven consecutive years in Washington and the Philippines, Eisenhower returned to the United States in January 1940 and briefly commanded a battalion. His reputation as one of the top staff officers in the army led to his selection as chief of staff to a division, a corps, and, finally, an army. During the Louisiana Maneuvers of September 1941, Colonel Eisenhower earned national press attention and a promotion to brigadier general for his role in the Third Army's victory over the second Army.1

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, General George C. Marshall, chief of staff of the army, summoned Eisenhower to the War Plans Division, where he so impressed Marshall that six months later he sent Eisenhower to London to command the European theater of operations, coordinating the American buildup for the planned 1943 cross-channel invasion. Eisenhower benefited from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's insistent support of Operation Torch, the November 1942 invasion of Northwest Africa. Eisenhower commanded that campaign through Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ) with an integrated Anglo-American staff that he made to work in tandem through personal example. Eisenhower's AFHQ went on to supervise the Allied landings in Sicily and the Italian mainland.

Few people in Washington or London in mid-1943 would have picked Eisenhower for the command of Operation Overlord, the campaign against Germany in northwestern Europe. Churchill promised Brooke the job three times, but at the First Quebec Conference of August 1943 Roosevelt asserted an American claim to the supreme command based on the eventual predominance of American manpower.

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