My brother Blaine posed me a question the other day. “How do you rate the Generals of WWII and why? I’ve listed my candidates and was wondering what your opinion of them is?” To do this topic justice, I would have to do some extensive research. Due to time constraints, my opinion would not be based upon an ex libris search. Instead I would do the equivalent of an ad-lib speech and improvise.
Main picture: Erwin Rommel in North Africa during June 1942. Many, if not most pundits, would rate Rommel as the best General of WW2. His ability to smash the Allies line at its most vulnerable point on numerous occasions begrudgingly made him a hero in many Allies eyes.
In his email, Blaine listed 10 Generals viz Alexander, Montgomery, Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Clark, Rommel, Guderian, Kesselring, Zhukov and facetiously Churchill. An obvious omission is Von Manstein who was indubitably one of the best Operational Generals of the war. Absent from this list are any Japanese or Italian generals. In both cases I would be hard pressed to provide examples except for Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of Pearl Harbour & Midway fame and General Yamashita both being Japanese. Messe, Pietro Badoglio and Radolfo Grazini are the only Italian generals who readily spring to mind.
Another omission from Blaine’s questions was the worst general of WW2. Without a doubt that has to be General Percival, the effete British Commander who single-handedly fell for General Yamashita’s ruses and bluster and surrended Singapore to a puny Japanese forces much to Churchill’s chagrin. On the German side, Korporal Hitler did more to destroy German Armies at Stalingrad and Tunisia than any Allied General could have done.
The worst British General by a wide margin has
to be Lieutenant-General Percival, General Officer
Commanding Malaya. Categorised as an ineffective
“staff wallah”, lacking ruthlessness and aggression
he surrended Singapore to inferior Japanese forces
From what I can recall from reading the magnum opus by Nigel Hamilton entitled Monty: The Battles of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery some 30 years ago, Montgomery struck me as methodical and thorough but unimaginative. His signature style of attack was equally unimaginative albeit well-prepared. Not even Churchill could persuade him to attack peremptorily. Neither Alexander in Africa nor Eisenhower in Europe could persuade Montgomery otherwise. On only one occasion did he not adhere to his own maxim: Operation Market Garden in October 1944 in the Netherlands. There is more to Montgomery’s sui generis on this occasion than meets the eye. In the book Struggle for Europe, Chester Wilmot exposes the rationale for Montgomery’s volte face: Montgomery’s rivalry with Patton. As Eisenhower was not in favour of Montgomery’s measured steady advance, so was impressed by Patton’s relentless drive. Sensing the way the political winds were blowing and hence more out of desperation than conviction, Montgomery presented his audacious plan using paratroopers to capture all the bridges up to the Rhine in Holland. This plan was totally out of character for Montgomery but it gained him Eisenhower’s ear and grudging acceptance of Montgomery’s northern Rhine crossing approach. Patton had been stymied.
Montgomery was a cantankerous man not given to suffer fools gladly. Strangely for his gruff disposition, he spoke with a squeaky high-pitched voice, the very antithesis of a military man. Be that as it may, but Montgomery was not easily dissuaded from a course of action as he became stubborn once convinced on a course of action. His son – and only child – during his marriage to a widow, Betty Carver, attributed his cautious approach to battle to his traumatic experiences during the Great War. For Montgomery, the first and foremost consideration regarding the execution of a battle was the lives of his men. This was the wellspring of his cautious approach.
Rating: 7 out of 10. Methodical but dull and unimaginative
With a miniscule standing army prior to WW2, promotion for American officers was a rarity. Unlike the British who were continually involved in some wars during the inter war years, the Americans had nothing comparable. Their first exposure to modern warfare was Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands during August 1942 and north west Africa in November 1942. It was a traumatic debut. Eisenhower was placed in charge of the African campaign during which they landed in Morocco and Algeria. Rommel dealt the Americans a swift bloody blow at Kasserine Pass in Algeria.
Eisenhower was then transferred to Britain to oversee the planning and execution of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe. Eisenhower came into his own as he battled firstly the interfering Churchill and finally the rambunctious Montgomery as the Battle of Normandy was going awry.
Rating: 8 out of 10. His political skills in handling the cantankerous generals such as Patton and Montgomery and even Patton were exemplary.
Patton was a soldier’s general. His legacy is still hotly contested. A late German friend of mine, Walter Baumgartl, once classified Patton as one of the worst generals of WW2. This judgment arose due to an incident during the campaign in Sicily when Patton slapped a soldier who was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. For this, Patton was court marshalled and side-lined. In defence of Patton and the most plausible explanation for his insensitive action was that the effects of PTSS were little understood. Whatever the reason, Patton misread them so badly as to believe that this soldier wanted to desert. Nonetheless it was inexcusable to strike a subordinate.
Ultimately Eisenhower was forced to relent. Patton was recalled and placed in charge of an American Army in Normandy. This momentous decision was what the American forces required to break-out of the suffocating bocage country and into the open at Falaise. Here the American dealt a crippling blow to the German forces. The battle of the Falaise Pocket was the quintessential massacre. It defies logic that Hitler prevaricated so long that the Germans were unable to withdraw timeously from Normandy and thus suffer catastrophic losses.
It was heady days as Patton dashed for Paris. Much to Patton’s disgust, the 2nd French Armoured Division under General Philippe Leclerc was allowed the honours of entering Paris first.
Patton continued his headlong dash due west heading to the German border. But lack of fuel brought the advance to a halt. Both Patton and Montgomery petitioned Eisenhower to be given priority as regards fuel allocation. During this seismic moment, Eisenhower disappointed both Generals by showing a semblance of partiality. He agreed to let both advance by splitting available fuel supplies equally between both advances.
It was at this juncture that Montgomery proposed his audacious airborne assault – Operation Market Garden.
Rating: 8 out of 10. His aggression combined with his rapport with the troops is legendary.
Amongst all of the German Generals had such an impressive reputation that Montgomery even had to remind the Allied troops in Africa not to refer to Rommel in such favourable terms.
Many Generals spent their retirement writing their memoirs of WW2. Like most autobiographies they deal with their friends with a light touch. Instead their enemies are dealt with savagely and critically. This is a natural human reaction and self-preservation mechanism. In Rommel’s case when he died by forced suicide at Hitler’s behest – he left behind in various ingenious hiding places the papers that recorded the story of his dramatic career and the exact details of his masterly campaigns. It was his custom to dictate each evening a running narrative of the day’s events and, after each battle, to summarize its course and the lessons to be learned from it. He wrote, almost daily, intimate and outspoken letters to his wife in which his private feelings and–after the tide had turned–forebodings found expression.
All of these notes and letters were compiled by the foremost military theorists of our time, Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart, into a book entitled The Rommel Papers which is still amongst my book collection. This furnishes one with an unvarnished view of Rommel and his achievements.
Rommel first rose to prominence during the Battle for France as Churchill christened it. During the breakthrough at Sedan, Rommel’s signature trait came to the fore viz leading from the front. This tactic allowed Rommel to accurately determine the ebb and flow of the battle thus permitting him to intervene at a crucial point in the battle. Another attribute of Rommel was revealed – going out on a limb. Fortunately for Rommel, his innate feel for warfare meant that he was seldom incorrect.
After General Graziani’s tepid attack on Egypt, the miniscule British under O’Connor swung into action. In spite of being outnumbered 9 to 1, they attacked the Italian forces. The Italians immediately buckled, then crumpled and finally fled back across Cyrenaica towards Tripoli. During the Battle of Beda Fomm, situated close to Benghazi, the British forces comprehensively defeated the Italians.
Africa was his next appointment as Commander of the Afrika Korps. This unit was rapidly formed to rescue the Italians from total defeat and was despatched post haste to Libya. This command was to bring Rommel to prominence due to his bold and audacious attacks. Despite lacking most items for an attack, Rommel sallied forth catching the British off-guard and even capturing the Supreme British Commander, General O’Connor.
The African Campaign became one of see-sawing battles with the Allies in most instances taking an inordinate number of casualties. The quality and capability of many Allied Tanks such as the Matilda might have been on a par with the German Mark IIIs and Mark IVs but it was the ubiquitous 88mm anti-aircraft gun employed as an anti-tank gun which was the decisive piece on the battlefield. The British 2 pounder and ultimately its replacement, the 6 pounder, was no match for the 88mm gun. In this regard, Rommel in his time honoured tradition would place them well forward to prevent the Allied tanks from breaking through.
It was only at El-Alamein where Rommel could no longer use his signature round-house punch to the south of the Allied forces that his modus operandi became inoperative. For the first the Allies could channel his advance onto their guns.
Rommel was defeated for the first time, forced to retreat by bounds all the way to Tunisia.
Rating: 9 out of 10. Through his approach of leading the attack, Rommel was keeping the Allies in North Africa on the defensive, outmanoeuvred and outclassed.
Albert Kesselring is another general with whom I am not au fait. By all accounts, Smiling Albert – his sobriquet to the Germans – was a highly competent Commander. In addition he was well liked by the rank and file.
Unlike the other Generals on this list, he is the only Luftwaffe General –
Generalfeldmarschall – even though he became well-known as the Commanding officer of all the German forces during the Italian Campaign.
Tarnishing Kesselring’s reputation were the number of massacres committed by troops under his command in Italy. The worst such carnage is known as the Marzabotto Massacre during which 800 partisans and civilians were murdered. Further marring his stature was his defiant description of this massacre to an Italian journalist as a normal military operation.
His memoir was entitled A Soldier to the Last Day which I have not read.
Rating: 5 out of 10. For not accepting responsibility for the dastardly actions of his troops in Italy and even condoning them.
Zhukov is the only Russian General who has made any impression on me. Apart from Stalin and Molotov, none of the other senior members of the Russian military or Communist Party have created an impression even though I have read the latest biography on Stalin entitled Stalin: The Red Tsar. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Stalin dominated all levels of Soviet society including the Politburo.
Zhukov first rose to prominence during the Battle of Moscow. Prior to this Zhukov was based in Siberia in order to prevent a Japanese invasion from Manchuria. When Russian spies in Japan reported that Japanese military ambitions lay elsewhere, the troops under Zhukov’s command were rapidly transferred to Moscow.
Being the onset of winter, these conditions were ideal for Zhukov troops already acclimatised to far harsher conditions in Siberia. Cognitive of the fact that Stalin had made it abundantly clear that no withdrawal would be countenanced, Zhukov acted with due harshness. He placed the troops of the penal battalions as the first line of defence. Directly behind them he placed a line of machine gunners. Their explicit role was to kill any Soviet troops attempting to withdraw or retreat to the rear.
The German advance was stalled due to the implacable Soviet resistance and due to their lack of supplies. Zhukov’s star was on the ascendant.
After the fall of Stalingrad with the loss of 250 000 German lives, the forces under Zhukov pushed the Germans back past Kursk. Instead of a straight line, the front line formed a huge bulge around Kursk. It was Zhukov’s duty to prevent the expected German offensive to recapture this salient. To this end, Zhukov used all the available manpower – both civilian and military – to create huge trench works stretching for hundreds of kilometres.
Despite the most earnest endeavours of Hitler’s most brilliant operational general, Von Manstein, they were unable to dislodge the Russian forces. Finally the Allied invasion of Sicily dissuaded Hitler from continuing the attack.
Zhukov had won again.
It was now that a phrase was coined in the Soviet Red Army, “Where you find Zhukov, you find victory”
Finally in April 1945, Zhukov was assigned to capture Berlin. Stalin had set a deadline of May Day, 1st May 1945, as the date for the capture of the German capital. Against stubborn resistance, late at night on the 30th April did the Soviet forces finally raise their flag on the roof of the Reichstag Building. It would still take a few days in which to subdue Berlin but the die had been cast. The end was nigh.
Like medieval kings of yore, Stalin was paranoid that his minions were fomenting plots against him. Unlike Hitler who even tolerated incompetence in his closest supporters, Stalin was forever wary of them and their motives. Zhukov was now to fall prey to Stalin’s insecurities. A final victory parade was scheduled to be held in Moscow in June 1945. Even though Zhukov was the general who had made victory possible, Stalin still bore delusions as a great army commander. As such, at his behest he would lead the procession and take the salute. During the preparations, Stalin’s fear of horses overcame his desire to be acknowledged as the victorious Russian general. Reluctantly, he was forced at hand the baton to its rightful recipient – Zhukov.
While watching the parade with Zhukov on his white stallion, Stalin was seething with rage. Conjuring all manner of Zhukovian plots in his fetid mind, Stalin demoted Zhukov to some minor appointment far from Moscow. Zhukov had become a non-person like many of Stalin’s former friends and their wives had become.
Knowing Stalin’s reputation, Zhukov kept a suitcase packed in case he was arrested on some arbitrary trumped-up charge. Stalin had committed a grave injustice after Zhukov’s years of dedication and loyal. Finally after Stalin’s lonely death, did Khrushchev, the incoming President “rehabilitate” Zhukov not once but twice.
Zhukov lived the rest of his life in obscurity stressed with regret due to not receiving recognition as a great commander. His death in 1974 was marked by burial with full military honours in Red Square at the Kremlin Wall.
Rating: 5 out of 10. Technically Zhukov can be ranked amongst the pantheon of great commanders and is done so by most pundits. What prevents me from a sanguine rating is his sheer profligacy with Russian lives. As such he was the very antithesis of Montgomery where it was the foremost consideration. Furthermore he was noted for his ruthless discipline using a firing squad and the infamous penal battalions that fought at the most dangerous front line sector as a means to keep his subordinates in line.
Heinz Guderian could be viewed as culpable for Hitler’s meteoric successes both in Poland and in France. It was his conception of armoured warfare where an integrated team of tanks, artillery and infantry would assault the enemy together with aircraft in support overhead. It was his vision which Hitler came to christen as Blitzkrieg – Lightening War.
These tactics were expounded in his book produced in 1936 entitled, “Achtung – Panzer!” being a seminal book on the subject. It reviewed the state of armoured development in the European nations and Soviet Russia, and presented Guderian’s theories on the effective use of armoured formations and combined-arms warfare ideas of other general staff officers. The book included the importance of airpower in support of the panzer units for future ground combat. Germany’s panzer forces were created largely along the lines laid down by Guderian in Achtung – Panzer!
Unlike many of the German Generals, Guderian never fell under Hitler’s hypnotic influence. His penchant for speaking truth to power – Hitler – also did not endear him to his boss.
It was during the Russian offensive that Guderian clashed with Hitler regarding the future direction of the war. Hitler never tolerated dissension from subordinates. With his confidence in Guderian eroded, he sacked him. Hitler only relented once the situation on the Ostfront became critical. After Stalingrad, Guderian was appointed as Inspector General of Armoured Troops, His responsibilities were to oversee the rebuilding of the greatly weakened panzer arm, to oversee tank design and production, and the training of Germany’s panzer forces, and he was to advise Hitler on their use. His new position allowed him to bypass much of the Nazi bureaucracy and report to Hitler directly.
Petty jealousies within the Wehrmacht and Guderian intolerance and lack of EQ culminated in frequent clashes with various people thus reducing his effectiveness.
His contribution to armoured warfare was further reinforced by the publication of his insightful biography after the war entitled Panzer Leader.
Rating: 9 out of 10. To a large measure, it was Guderian’s conceptualisation of the future deployment of armoured forces into what is now known as combined arms warfare which provided the Germans with the edge at the commencement of the war. Once the tide had turned in late 1942 first at El-Alamein and then at Stalingrad, these tactics were no longer of use to Germany. That is when Hitler’s ideas of defensive warfare and the wonder weapons came into their own. For many reasons the Germans never fully capitalised on Guderian’s concepts. Initially it was the Chiefs of Staff who failed to appreciate their war-winning capability. Secondly the number of Armoured Divisions was always too puny in relation to their needs. Thirdly and most critically, their design only envisaged short range forays. The vast expanses of Russia were to prove to be their nemesis where resupply and the lack of a coherent logistics organisation were insufficient. The production rate of tanks was too feeble to sustain the losses being incurred. Nevertheless despite all these misgivings and shortcomings, Guderian had provided the tool with which Hitler could subjugate Europe. It was Hitler’s lack of foresight and planning for a long-range war without a strategic air arm that was to prove fatal to his rapacious ambitions.
Like all individuals, most generals possessed their flaws and some even fatal blind spots. But that is the nature of leadership. Decisions are taken with limited information constrained by the resources available. Furthermore one’s life experiences determine one’s outlook. For instance, if Zhukov had been raised in the West, in all probability he would not have been as profligate with his soldier’s lives. In the Stalinist milieu pervading Russia at the time, human life was valueless.
Perhaps I have judged these Generals unfairly in holding them to the norms of the 21st century but that is my prerogative as reviewer. If I were forced to assess Roman Generals for instance, such an approach could not be taken. In that milieu, all Generals were brutal in their treatment of their enemies and even the civilians who got in the way.
- Monty: The Battles of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery by Nigel Hamilton (1994)
- Struggle for Europe by Chester Wilmot
- The Rommel Papers by Captain Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1982)
- Achtung Panzer by Heinz Guderian (1936)
- The Panzer General by Heinz Guderian (1952)
- Movie: Patton (1970)
- Documentary: Patton 360 degrees ( 2010)
- Documentary: Rommel (2008)