In the 70 years since the United States embarked upon World War II, the reputations of many senior field commanders have ebbed and flowed. None has withstood the judgment of history more so than that of GEN Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Over the course of the European war, Eisenhower made numerous critical decisions involving the selection of subordinates, military strategy, and the cohesion of the Western Alliance, but three controversial decisions stand out and mark Ike as a great commander: the decision to launch D-Day, the broad front strategy and the redirection of Allied forces from Berlin toward the Southern Redoubt in April 1945. Ike’s three critical decisions as Supreme Commander not only dictated the course of the war in northwest Europe, but also laid the foundation for the postwar world.
Two years from the day when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt informed Eisenhower that he was to command the Allied Expeditionary Force. Though the President had considered Army Chief of Staff GEN George Marshall for the appointment, Roosevelt felt he could not spare Marshall from Washington, D.C. Consequently, he appointed Eisenhower, whom he considered “the best politician among the military men. He is a natural leader who can convince other men to follow him, and this is what we need in his position more than any other quality. ” Ike proved an inspired choice.
On February 12, 1944, Eisenhower received the formal directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS): “You are hereby designated as Supreme Allied Commander of the forces placed under your_prders for operations for liberation of Europe from Germans. … You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other United Nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” This mission statement formed the foundation of Ike’s wartime strategy as he organized Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). Given complete latitude by the CCS, Eisenhower defined operations aimed at the “industrial heart” of Germany, the Ruhr and the Saar, concluding that such operations would lead to the destruction of the German armed forces because the Germans would defend the industrial heart with maximum forces available.
Though the British provided the details of D-Day and the proposed site of the landings, only the Supreme Commander could make the fateful decision to launch the invasion. On June 1, Ike transferred SHAEF (Advance) to Southwick House, Adm. Bertram H. Ramsay’s headquarters north of Portsmouth. Weather and meteorological data dictated that the invasion must occur between June 5-7 or the next possible period in mid-June. In Eisenhower’s own words, he felt that the only remaining great decision to be faced before D-Day “was that of fixing, definitely, the day and hour of the assault.” It was at Southwick House that Ike made the decision that he was bom to make.
Then it was the commanders’ turn. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, commanding the ground forces, recommended proceeding with the invasion. Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who feared excessive casualties among the airborne troops, remained pessimistic. Ramsey opined that if the invasion were to go forward on June 6, an order had to be given immediately. Ike weighed all the alternatives and said, “I am quite positive we must give the order. I don’t like it, but there it is. … I don’t see how we can do anything else.”
The Allied commanders convened one last time at 4:15 a.m. on Monday, June 5, for a final update. Again Ike polled his commanders and again he received an optimistic assessment from Stagg. The decision to designate Tuesday, June 6, as D-Day now rested on the shoulders of the Supreme Commander. After final careful consideration and deep reflection, Eisenhower announced his decision: “OK, we’ll go.”
With those three words, Ike launched the largest amphibious invasion in history and took the initial steps on the road to Berlin. There could now be no turning back. Having witnessed the lead-up to Ike’s decision, his chief of staff, Walter Bedell Smith, later recalled being struck by “the isolation and loneliness of high command.” Historian Carlo D’Esté said more eloquently in Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life: “June 5 was a supreme test of [Ike’s] generalship and his ability to keep his nerve under the most trying circumstance he would ever face as a commander. There would be other crises ahead, but none approached the magnitude of D-Day.”
By late summer, the Normandy campaign was successfully concluded with the liberation of Paris. As the Allied armies moved north through the Pas de Calais and into Belgium and then east toward the German border, the size of Die’s forces and the extent of the Allied front dictated that Eisenhower “take direct control of the land forces operating on the Continent.” In his report to the CCS, Ike stated that the “change in the command set-up was necessary … due to the diverging lines of operation and the need for having a commander on each of the main fronts capable of handling, with a reasonable degree of independence, the day-to-day operation in each sector.”
Consequently Dee established his operational headquarters on the Continent and Montgomery’s responsibility for arranging the cc*>rdination between his 21st Army Group and LTG Omar N. Bradley’s forces terminated. Montgomery’s command was now designated the Northern Group of Armies, while Bradley assumed command ?? 12th, or Central, Group of Armies. Soon to come under Eisenhower’s command was the Southern Group of Armies under command of LTG Jacob L. Devers, whose armies had landed in southern France in late summer. Another significant change occurred on August 8 when all British and American airborne forces were consolidated and placed under the single command of Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton to form the First Allied Airborne Army. This force now constituted SHAEF’s strategic reserve.
Ike’s decision to advance on a broad front, vice a narrow thrust, toward the heartland of Germany was entirely consistent with his belief that victory in Europe would be achieved by an Allied effort rather than a British or American one. This decision proved one of the most controversial of the war and brought the Supreme Commander considerable criticism from Montgomery and Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Alan Brooke. Throughout the campaign in northwest Europe, both Montgomery and Brooke remained contemptuous of Ike’s tactical and strategic abilities. Not surprisingly, the change in the direction of the land campaign did not sit well with Montgomery, who had previously served as land forces commander.
According to the Supreme Commander’s grandson, David Eisenhower, Eisenhower’s long-range thinking emphasized two cardinal points. After securing ports sufficient to supply the Allied Expeditionary Force, all Germans were to be cleared from areas west of the Rhine before an invasion of Germany. A lesser objective of closing the Rhine in its entirety would be to overrun the Saar basin and to seize the Siegfried Line defenses west of the river behind which the Germans could concentrate at will ??t strong counterattacks. Another would be to “preposition Allied forces for two or more major thrusts across the river, which would enable the Allies to isolate the Ruhr while establishing a wide front for the final advance into Germany and linkup with the Red Army.” To achieve this, command unity would be paramount to Ike’s overall strategy as the Allied force advanced along a broad front.
To compensate for Montgomery’s perceived “demotion,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill promoted Monty to the rank of Field Marshal. Chagrined that he now directed but a single army group, Montgomery argued vehemently that the Allied advance be directed along a single thrust by his 21st Army Group, but Ike disagreed. After V-E Day, Monty wrote, had we “run the show properly, the war could have been finished by Christmas 1944. The blame for this must rest with the Americans,” or, specifically, Eisenhower.
To assuage Monty’s hurt feelings and to determine whether or not the Germans could succeed in establishing renewed and effective resistance, Ike approved Operation Market Garden, Monty’s abortive attempt to bridge the Lower Rhine and advance into Germany in September 1944. To support Monty’s armored thrust to capture several bridges throughout Holland, Eisenhower deployed First Allied Airborne Army. The ensuing operation – poorly planned and even more poorly executed – ended in disaster.
Why had Ike approved it and committed SHAEF’s strategic reserve? Quite simply, Eisenhower knew what the war meant to the British, and he felt that he had to give Monty an opportunity to validate his strategic assumptions. Moreover, he sought to keep British prestige high in light of the growing preponderance of American industrial and military might. Market Garden was one of the few times when the Supreme Commander approved a strategy on purely nationalistic grounds.
The decision to support Monty’s plan hardly constituted Ike’s finest hour. With the commitment of SHAEF’s strategic reserve, the Allied advance soon ground to a halt in mid-September 1944. Commenting on the logistical problems now plaguing Eisenhower’s advance, historian Cornelius Ryan remarked, “The Germans were losing faster than the Allies could win.” Antwerp, the only Belgian port large enough to support the Allied advance, was not completely secured until November. In short, logistical problems, coupled with an increasingly tenacious enemy defense, led to a reassessment of Allied strategy.
Historians continue to debate whether Eisenhower squandered the opportunity to end the war in the autumn of 1944. Both sides of the debate fall basically along national lines, but with Market Garden a failure, Eisenhower returned to his original strategy and ordered a general advance along a broad front – Monty in the north, Bradley in the center and Devers in the south. Ike’s decision precipitated a crisis in the Allied High Command. Montgomery pleaded for the priority of supplies, but Ike cabled his subordinate, “We must immediately exploit our success by promptly breaching the Siegfried Line, crossing the Rhine on a wide front and seizing the Saar and the Ruhr.” Later Eisenhower added, “1 see no reason to change this [broad-front advance] conception.”
Was the broad-front strategy the right choice? Historians’ opinions differ on its efficacy, as did those of the primary combatants – 70 years of postmortem have done little to settle the issue. Montgomery repeatedly claimed that with proper resources, he could have bridged the Rhine and taken Berlin before Christmas had the Supreme Commander approved an advance of 40 divisions under Monty’s direct command. Bradley and Third Army commander George S. Patton confined their criticisms of Ike to their respective diaries, Patton stating that “ike was more British than the British.” “Oh, God, for John J. Pershing,” lamented Patton, remembering Pershing’s refusal to amalgamate American divisions into French and British commands during the Great War. Ike was in charge, however, and he maintained the broad-front advance.
What is undeniable is that Ike’s broad-front strategy maintained consistent pressure on Germany’s western frontier, but it also contributed to the initial defeat of American forces in the Ardennes region of Belgium when Hitler launched his last major offensive in the west on December 16, 1944. David Eisenhower, a prominent historian in his own right, states that the broad-front strategy left the Germans with no real alternative but to select the unpromising Ardennes sector for their December offensive. When it was spent, the Allies found themselves well poised for the Rhine crossings that would go forward almost effortlessly in March. But that was all in the future.
In the days following the German assault, Bradley dismissed the enemy offensive as merely spoiling attacks and discounted the severity of Hitler’s great gamble. Bxe took a different view when the true scope of the offensive was revealed. Alerting the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, he rushed them to the area around St. Vith and Bastogne. Gathering his American commanders together on December 19, Bee admonished them in no uncertain terms that “the present situation is to be regarded as one of opportunity . . . and not of disaster. There will be only cheerful faces at this conference table.”
Eisenhower next directed Patton to prepare an offensive to penetrate the German advance from the south. What followed was Patton’s most brilliant campaign as he raced to Bastogne, relieving the beleaguered garrison on December 26. In the interim, Ike ceded control of Bradley’s First U.S. Army under Courtney Hodges to Montgomery for the upcoming battle. The move severely strained the Supreme Commander’s relationship with Bradley but the reallocation of military forces made perfect military sense as Bradley seemed incapable of directing those forces split by the German advance. By mid-January 1945, the German attack was spent and the “bulge” flattened. The cost, however, had been severe.
Again Montgomery raised the scepter of a single overall ground forces commander. This time Ike had had enough. Infuriated that Montgomery had informed the press that unless he be given “full operational direction, control, and coordination for a northern advance, otherwise there would be another failure,” Ike prepared a communiqué to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, informing them that he and Monty could no longer work together as a team. Belatedly, Montgomery realized that he had overplayed his hand and drafted an “eyes only” message to Eisenhower, promising that Ike would hear no more of the subject.
Ike’s last great decision in the war centered on the Allied advance into the German heartland. As outlined in his final report to the CCS, Eisenhower envisaged operations for 1945 would now fall into three phases: “first, the destruction of the enemy forces west of the Rhine and closing to that river; second, the seizure of bridgeheads over the Rhine from which to develop operations into Germany; and third, the destruction of the remaining enemy east of the Rhine and the advance into the heart of the Reich.” This purpose had guided all his actions since early 1944. In mid-March, led by Hodges’s First U.S. Army, the Western Allies established a secure bridgehead over the Rhine. Montgomery and Patton bridged the last natural barrier into Germany a week later.
The Wehrmacht defended the Ruhr industrial region with all its might, but by April, resistance totally collapsed. German prisoners were being rounded up at a rate of 5,000 a day. The final count in the Ruhr was 317,000, including 24 generals and an admiral. Once the process of eliminating the enemy forces in the Ruhr had reached a stage when they no longer presented any potential threat to Allied security, Ike laid out his strategy for a thrust deeper into Germany. All that remained was the end game. In developing his strategy, the Supreme Commander had to decide whether or not to accelerate his advance and attempt to seize the German capital or redirect Allied forces elsewhere.
Should Eisenhower attempt to beat the Russians to Berlin? Many in the Allied camp thought so, including the British Prime Minister. Churchill favored a direct advance toward the German capital, but in Ike’s eyes, the city was a “prestige objective” that lacked military significance. Ike remained intent on the destruction of enemy forces wherever they were. Moreover, Bradley estimated that such a drive would result in more than 100,000 casualties for an objective that would be handed over to the Russians in accordance with the Yalta Accords. Russian casualties were actually three times Bradley’s estimate. Left unsaid was that American military strength was needed for the final assault on Japan as soon as the European war was successfully concluded.
By April 11, advancing units of Bradley’s armies had reached the Elbe at Magdeburg. Berlin was still more than 50 miles away. In light of the military situation, Eisenhower wrote off Berlin and redirected American forces south to destroy the National Redoubt, Germany’s last major stronghold in the Bavarian Alps. The reports of a Nazi stronghold proved illusory, but only in hindsight. As Stephen Ambrose so artfully articulated Eisenhower’s thinking, “In March 1945 … [Roosevelt’s] policy was to defeat Germany, redeploy to the Pacific . . . and get along with the Russians. Eisenhower did not question the policy; he did do his best to carry it out.”
Ike’s decision about the importance of capturing Berlin differed considerably from those of the British. On April 1, Churchill went over Eisenhower’s head and appealed directly to Roosevelt. When Montgomery protested the removal of LTG William Simpson’s Ninth U.S. Army from his command, thus denying him the resources to take Berlin, even if the Supreme Commander had so approved such a thrust, Lke declared, “That place [Berlin] has become, so far as I am concerned, nothing but a geographical location, and I have never been interested in these. My purpose is to destroy the enemy’s forces and his powers to resist.”
Was it the right decision? Churchill chided Ike and the American chiefs of staff as being neophytes in the complex world of power politics. Eisenhower stood firm. “I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and my thinking so as to carry out such an operation,” Bxe later added. The CCS did not even discuss Eisenhower’s cable and left the decision to the Supreme Commander. That settled the matter. There would be no advance to Berlin.
Could Eisenhower have actually captured the German capital? The jury is still out. Historian Ambrose remains skeptical, stating that Eisenhower’s critics assume that the Russian timing would have been the same even if Simpson’s Ninth Army had pushed on for Berlin. Simpson had nearly 50,000 veteran troops poised to strike, but Stalin had more than 1 million ready to go. And though Eisenhower seldom responded to his critics who damned him for not striking directly toward the German capital, as a presidential candidate in 1952, Bxe stated that none of his detractors had offered to “go out and choose the 10 thousand mothers whose sons would have been killed capturing ‘a worthless objective.'”
Field Marshal Montgomery and GEN Patton vehemently disagreed with Eisenhower’s decision. Montgomery argued pointedly, “The Americans could not understand that it was of little avail to win the war strategically if we lost it politically.” In his postwar memoirs, Monty continued to state his case that Ike had made a grave error in not advancing toward Berlin, “Because of this curious viewpoint we suffered accordingly from V-E Day onward, and are still so suffering. It became obvious to me in the autumn of 1944 [that] we were going to ‘muck it up/ I reckon we did.”
Patton, too, came straight to the point. In responding to Bxe’s strategy of avoiding a costly battle in Berlin in order to maintain the pressure on other fronts and to dedicate overwhelming resources to care for thousands of German displaced persons and Allied prisoners of war, Patton said, “Ike, I don’t see how you figure that out We had better take Berlin, and quick!”
“Well, who would want it?” Ike asked.
Patton rested his arm on the Supreme Commander’s shoulder and said, “I think history will answer that question for you.”
On May 2, Berlin fell to the Russians. Eisenhower, in turn, sought to protect his flanks. SHAEF G-2 had accepted Nazi propaganda at face value that Germany was preparing the impenetrable Alpine Redoubt for a final defensive stand. As Supreme Commander, Bxe could hardly dismiss such a report. While preparing for a safe junction with Soviet armies along the Elbe, Eisenhower directed Bradley to redirect his advance toward Bavaria and the elimination of the mythical redoubt. By the end of April, Eisenhower’s armies had captured Bavaria and stood on the Czech frontier. Bxe subsequently approved an advance across the border, but denied Patton the opportunity to capture Prague. As with Berlin, Prague remained a political, not military, objective in the Supreme Commander’s eyes.
On May 5, German resistance across the entire front came to a speedy end. Dxe now turned his attention toward securing the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany in accordance with Roosevelt’s unilateral proclamation at Casablanca in January 1943. Two days later, Ike accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, informing the Combined Chiefs of Staff that “the mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.”
In retrospect, many of Bxe’s decisions remain controversial, but Roosevelt historian Eric Larrabee credits Eisenhower with ensuring that American armies stood forth at the close of the war in proportion to their numbers and their contribution to the fighting. What Eisenhower had accomplished was the fulfillment of Roosevelt’s desire that the United States would not withdraw from Europe into the isolation and non-interventionism that characterized the aftermath of World War I. In the figure of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the United States was in Europe to stay, and “on this rock would be built the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the world we have lived in since.”
The verdict of history wholeheartedly concurs.
Top commanders of the Allied Expeditionary Force meet in London in 1944 to discuss the cross-Channel /nvas/on, codenamed Operation Overlord. Left to right are: LTG Omar Bradley (U.S. First Army), Adm. Bertram Ramsay (Allied Naval Expeditionary Force), Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder (deputy commander), GEN Eisenhower, Gen. Bernard Montgomery Air Chief Marshal Trafhrd Leigh-Mallory (Allied Expeditionary Air Force) and LTG Walter Bedell Smith (chief of staff).
In late summer 1944, three Allied army groups and seven armies deployed in an arc from the North Sea to Switzeriand to push the Germans to the border during the Siegfried Une Campaign.
In 1943, GEN Eisenhower, thencommander of the North African Theater of Operations, congratulates Gen. Montgomery on the successes of the British Eighth Army in Africa’s Western Desert.
In March 1945, GEN Eisenhower shows his plan of maneuver to LTG George S. Patton Jr. (left), commanding general of U.S. Third Army, and LTG Jacob L. Devers, commanding general of Sixth Army Group.
From left, GEN Eisenhower holds an impromptu conference with three of his field commanders, LTG Patton, LTG Bradley and LTG Courtney Hodges, on a German airfield in March 1945.
By COL Cole C. Kingseed
U.S. Army retired
COL Cole C. Kingseed, USA Ret., Ph.D., a former professor of history at the U.S. Military Academy, is a writer and consultant.
IKE’S THREE GREAT DECISIONS THAT SHAPED WORLD WAR II
Byline: Kingseed, Cole C
Publication Date: 08-01-2011
Copyright Association of the United States Army Aug 2011