Magazine article America in WWII

IKE Takes Command

Magazine article America in WWII

IKE Takes Command

Article excerpt

FDR lost sleep deciding who would lead the fight against Germany.

Once he made his decision, it was Dwight Eisenhower who lost sleep--planning the greatest invasion in history.

NO one recorded whether Dwight Eisenhower wore his famous grin or appeared somber and reflective as he looked through the window of his plane at the US coast coming into view below on New Year's Day 1944. Ike was on the way home for a brief rest. After that, he would assume the greatest burden of any American general in the Second World War: the command of all Allied forces in the war against Nazi Germany.

The ground below was greener and more inviting than North Africa, where Eisenhower had commanded Operation Torch, the first American landings on German-held territory, in November 1942. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps had dealt the Americans an embarrassing setback in Tunisia's Kasserine Pass in February 1943. After that, however, the Yanks began to learn tactical lessons from the brilliant success of General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery's British Eighth Army, which had driven Rommel from Egypt to Tunisia. Ike's Americans rallied in time to contribute to the final destruction of the Afrika Korps, becoming professional war-fighters along the way.

Eisenhower moved on to command the Allied invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 and the near-disastrous invasion of Italy itself at Salerno that September. He retained command during the hard and bloody northward slog on the Italian peninsula, with the Germans fiercely defending every inch of ground.

Although the British liked Ike, they weren't impressed with his qualifications for supreme command. He had seen no action in World War I and had never commanded a combat formation of any size, even in peacetime. He was, however, a former student at the US Command and Staff College and had been a successful commander in the massive war games conducted in Louisiana in 1940. He was, by all accounts, the ultimate staff officer--a meticulous organizer and facilitator who always got the job done.

Whether or not the British cared to admit it, Eisenhower had commanded firmly and methodically from North Africa to Italy. He was creative enough to adapt battle plans and strategies to the realities on the ground, and flexible and charmingly diplomatic enough to maintain cordial cooperation among the Allies. Though very loyal to his subordinates, he didn't restrain himself from booting officers who didn't know their business. And when disputes arose between his subordinates and their British Army counterparts, he used his powers of diplomacy to get both sides working as a team, using his famous grin to good effect. After US success in Sicily and at Salerno, British officers stopped sneeringly referring to the Americans as "our Italians." Under Eisenhower, the Yanks had proven themselves to be tough fighters.

Now, as 1944 began, Eisenhower faced the greatest challenge of his military career, in fact the greatest challenge faced by any US Army officer since Ulysses S. Grant marched south against Robert E. Lee exactly 80 years earlier. As supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SCAEF) for the invasion of Europe, Eisenhower would direct Operation Overlord--the breaching of Adolf Hitler's coastal defenses in Western Europe (the fearsome Atlantic Wall)--and the subsequent liberation of German-held Northern Europe.

Picking a Winning General

Eisenhower's appointment as SCAEF wasn't automatic, nor had he been the first choice. The British had agreed that an American officer should assume supreme command in Europe and left the question of who it would be to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During 1942 and 1943, Allied brass expected FDR to choose US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall for the job. Like Eisenhower, Marshall had never commanded troops in combat, but his brilliance as chief of staff was admired among the Western Allied leadership. …

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