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 w