Discussion in 'Western Europe' started by ickysdad, May 5, 2013.
Just how good or bad were Allied generals compared to their German counterparts?
That is a very difficult question as both sides had there good and bad, Both had there generals that succeeded with the littlest and failed with the greatest amount of support. I might suggest looking at generals in singular term's rather then them as a whole group, In which case there is a thread on here already that talks about over and under rated generals from both WWII and WWI, Could be a good starting point for you and a possible place for you to esquire about other generals you come across.
Generals run the whole gamut from outstanding to very bad, so it's easier to compare individual Generals than compare them as a whole. Secondly, Generals cannot be seperated from the politics of their respective countries. Restrictions placed upon them can prevent them from showing their full abilities or can allow them to demonstrate their fullest potential. Then the quality within the allies varied from country to country and from year to year. Stalin's purges pre-war hampered the quality of Soviet generals early war. Early combat experience helped the Germans early on, but Hitler's meddling and using politics as a qualification hurt Germany later. U.S. Generals initially were a mixed lot as you had many National Guard Generals taken into the service during expansion that were not the best available, but as time went on ability became more important. As Von Noobie said, it's easier if you compare specific Generals.
I would not agree that "Generals ran the gamut from "outstanding" to "bad". It isn't easy to make a simple linear comparison. These men did not perform comparable tasks under controlled test conditions like a bunch of students. Nor do we necessarily have the information at our disposal, or experience ourselves, 3/4 a century later to make an objective judgment. .... However its an interesting topic./
Probably the worst Generals in WW2 were those who had never been trained to command or had the experience to do so.
Most generals of the Second World war were the products of professional armies and only appointed to command after extensive training and experience. There were exceptions to this. There have always been people whose power and status led them to undertake a military role for which they lacked skills or experience. In earlier centuries royal blood would bring an obligation to command. It is hard to argue that William Augustus Duke of Cumberland or William Duke of Orange were a good generals. The politics of the US Civil war threw up some politician generals such as Ben Butler. But all the really big decisions in war are at the grand strategic level and need to be made with the approval of the political as well as military leaders. Furthermore, C20th technology enabled those in the highest command to micromanage at a remote distance via the telephone and telex.
There are quite a few contenders for any "worst Generalship" list among the politicians who tried to act as generals.
Adolf Hitler's military experience was as an NCO, but considered himself to be the Greatest military commander of all time, committed his country and people to an un-winnable war and gambled recklessly with their lives.
Josef Stalin, was a ruthless dictator with his unique style of micromanagement and made a series of disastrous decisions over the structure and strategy of the Red army in the lead up to the german invasion of 1941. He did learn from his mistakes and got a lot better.
Winston Churchill, had been a professional soldier before he became a politician and had extensive experience high command having been in the war cabinet in the Great War. However, he was not very good and impulsive enthusiams for unsound projects such as Gallipoli, Narvik as well as a range of bizarre interventions that he was talked out of. e.g. Norway instead of France or a landing on the tip of Sumatra in 1945. He also interfered with operaitons throughout the war and as a minimum making nuisance of himself. . However, Churchill was a political leader from a parliamentary democracy with a strong culture of cabinet and committee work. He picked good people and listened to sound argument. It also made him one part of what is possibly the greatest coalition of all time the United Nations based on the Anlgo American Combined chiefs of staff Committee
FDR had no military experience and left matters to his heads of the professional services, which is possibly why thiungs generally went smoothly and US Grand strategy worked well. He was the other half of the remarkable coallition.
Several Soviet generals in 1941 owed their position to favour with Stalin and were part of the Soviet weakness..
Himmler played at soldiers in 1944-5 with disastrous results.
I'll think about the rest.
The allies won and the Germans lost, and the really big German decisions were very bad.
What I wrote below is entirely my personal opinion from what I gathered from different commanders of different nations.
We also have to take account different military cultures here. German officer corps were trained from early age from high militarist talent oriented enviroment. OKW (Oberkommando Wehrmacht) and OKH (Oberkommando der Heer ) was a product of these talented young staff officers who climbed ranks due to accomplishment , talent which rewarded creativity , resourcefulness , tactical innovation , speedy manuevers. Same with divisional and regimental commanders and staff. In summary German commanders were trained in an enviroment that inspired using and grabbing initiative , oppurtunity when presented and get maximum efficiency from military operations.
Russian side was complately different at the initial stage of war. First civil war then Red Terror , political favouritism and finally Stalin's purges left Red Army quite paralysed and insecure during the initial stages of conflict. Commanders especially army / corps level couldn't dare to take iniative much , always had to take over their shoulders ands await instructions from Moscow regardless of changing conditions of fluctual mobile battle condition. Things only got better and better when skilled army group commanders like Jukov , Rokossovsky , Koniev etc were given a high degree of freedom and initiative by Stalin after 1941/42 period and when Stalin learned to take what his General Staff said into consideration.
On Westen Allies side both Britain and France lost a high number of potentially skillful officer cadets in trench warfare of WW1. Moreover the way they won victory in WW1 by attritional warfare made them evaluate a lot of things wrong. Constant defensive mindset ( defensive success of Verdun ) set in among French along with fortress , non mobile warfare thinking. It was also cheaper , traditional known stuff. Building a Maginot Line brought both a false psychological relief due to Verdun mirage and saved budget from excessive defense spending like mobile warfare manuevers , tanks , mass tank formations ,experimentation like air-ground cooperation etc. British army was mainly stuck in regimental formation and favourtism though it was more open to innovation compared to French. Most advantageous side in Western camp was USA in commanding. West Point brought up highly skilled officers. More over American commanders were much more open to innovation , experimentation , taking initiative beginning from lower ranks. They were also fast learners. As late comers to war they might be green at first but US commanders learned their job pretty fast , faster than British counterparts.
Well there obviously were Generals that performed better than others. All Generals are not created equal, some are obviously more talented than others, just like people in every other field. Some are better tacticians, some better logisticians, some inspired their troops to higher levels of performance, others sucked morale out of their units like a vampire sucking blood and resulted in poor battlefield performance. Many Generals are promoted, within the military, even today, due to polictical reasons. They served as a 2d Lt. with an officer on the promotion board. They have a political proponent in Congress. They kiss arse with their superior. They curry favor with the political administration. They have served the requisite amount of time, have never failed but have never distinguished themselves, and are promoted past their capabilities.
Secondly. he asked about Generals, not just those that served at the strategic level. I took his question to refer to generals as a whole, meaning at every command level. If I am incorrect the OP can correct me.
A very broad question, difficult to answer conclusively. What tools available to a commander did play a part in how well they operated.
In a general sense )) German officers were very skilled in the tactical and operational elements of command from the start of the war. German strategic doctrine played well with this as these officers at all levels were given objectives to secure, while being allowed to use their troops in whatever manner they say fit so long as they reached their objective on time.
Japanese commanders, while perhaps not quite as skilled as their German counter parts, were ahead of their Allied opponents by a fairly wide margine. What they may have lacked in skill compared to German officers they made up for in aggressiveness and boldness. This mated well with Japanese strategic direction early in the war as they needed to act swiftly to hide serious flaws within their logistics.
I would like to say something positive about Italian Gernerals but just can't bring myself to do so. Certainly there were good ones in the somewhere, but most senior commanders got there by loyalty to Il Duce over ability.
The Allied commanders as a general observation were at the start of hostilities not a terribly inspiring bunch. Over cautious and timid when boldness was required, reckless when caution was advisable. They did however learn quickly and adapted their tactic's into more modern and flexible applications.
The German and Japanese 'advantages' had negative impact as the war wound on. When Hitler began to take an ever deeper control of operations, his orders took from local commanders the ability use their own judgement about how best to dispose their troops to achieve an objective. In simpler terms it did not matter what ground you controled when so long as you captuired or retained your objective. Whith Hitler deciding where each Battaluion was to go, the command flexability was lost.
For Japan the impulsiveness of many commanders would come to haunt them. Many ignored od disobeyed orders they did not like and acted as they saw fit. In the first year of the war this was not much of a problem and marching to the sound of the guns was acceptable, but as the war wound on Japan, with limited resources, needed to husband their assets for use when most needed. They needed to have every act bring them closer to victory, not simply contact with the enemy.
In short it could be said that unlike the Allied Generals, the Axis commanders did not learn all that well from the battlefield.
Sheldrake makes a good point, Alled-Soviet strategic direction was far superior to its Axis counterpart.
Id agree that the Allied strategic direction was far superior to that of the Axis, But I'd also point out that the Axis strategic objective failed based heavily on political interference. Germans commander's at all levels still managed some amazing victories with limited supplies and trained troops right into 1945 while some of Italy's best Generals become political threat's early on and there statements that Italy was not in a position for war (specifically invading Egypt) was over ruled by politicians.
Had Mussolini listened to those Generals that had a clue what they where talking about then it very likely Italy would never have been an active combatant in WWII which probably would have worked better for Germany.
"Generally speaking" most generals in most armies got their rank by a combination of skill, luck and politics. The best generals in war were those that wanted to win more than they feared losing. In this respect the German army came off best due to superior selection and training methods. German officers were encouraged to take a certain amount of risk. Officers in Allied armies were often (not always-depended on political support) sacked after a failure. This made them cautious and less prone to risk taking-with certain famous exceptions noted.
This January I finished a book that myyoungest son gave me for Christmas; The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today, By Thomas E. Ricks
And while it doesn’t cover other nations during WW2, it really gets into the American Command structure and how General Marshall reorganized it to promote men he thought had the “potential” to be outstanding if they applied themselves properly regardless of their education or politics.
Eisenhower wasn’t the only one he “jumped” over more senior officers. He also had no toleration for what he interpreted as command failure, and dismissed a great number of men who later proved them selves to be fine commanders. The only General that remains a mystery is Mark Clark, and why he kept his command isn’t fully explained.
I can, with a clear conscience, recommend this book to anyone interested in just how we went from his vision, to Korea’s split personality war, and Vietnam’s embarrassment. He doesn’t cover much between the end of Vietnam and the first Gulf War, but his assessments and evaluations of the American military mind-set in those time-frames is quite interesting.
All the above may be true, but the German generals were certainly the snappiest dressers.
It is very difficult to compare Generals because the circumstances each commander faced were different.
Of course it was possible to grade these officers, they were graded and promoted by their own Armies, usually through some rational selection process, tempered by the inevitable elements of cronyism nepotism sycophancy etc which nowadays we might emphasize as "personal career development". (However, being overtly ambitious was a sin for some the Second World War Officer Corps. In the 1970s I interviewed Aukinleck's sister. She described Neil Ritchie as a "frightful careerist", and meant it as a serious criticism.) The German Panzer Inspectorate West produced a grading of Panzer Divisions, which included an assessment of the Divisional commander. That works as divisional level and maybe corps, but the roles of army commanders vary much more. How can Bradley,Patton,Simpson, Bereton or Hodges be compared in any meaningful way, given the different challenges facing them, let alone with von Paulus, Guderian, Crearer or Chuikov?
It isn't really fair to compare General Wavell with, say Montgomery or Alexander, even though they had senior command roles in the Middle East and North Africa. Wavell had the misfortune to command in 1941 when Britain was on the back foot and trying to do too much with too little and usually too late. Alexander and Montgomery had the fortune to take over similar roles after the tide had turned. Richard O'Connor commanded the corps sized Western Desert Force in 1940 with great skill and achieved a stunning series of victories, driving a vastly superior number of Italians out of Egypt and Cyrenaica. Had he not escaped from PW camp in 1943 he might have been regarded as the lost military genius. However, as a Corps commander in NW Europe it was much harder to shine.
Not all generals are the same. Someone titled "General" could command formations ranging from Brigades of C 2,000 men to Army groups of millions or the strategic direction of an empire of 300m. One of the interesting moments in the US Army study on the operations of 11 Panzer Division was the revelation that the "Division" had fighting strength of not much more than a US mech battalion reinforced by an armoured company.. Divisional and Corps commanders fought a tactical battle, but Army, Army Group and Theatre commanders needed different skills. For example, Patton was a great army commander, but some aspects of his personality would have precluded him from stepping into Eisenhower or Marshall's shoes. He was just too impetuous, egotistic and politically naive to have been a good team player at the highest levels of Allied Command. The same could be said of Montgomery. Bill Slim tops British "Great Commander " lists, but his fame is for commanding an army in a sideshow. He never faced the challenges, that Alanbrooke or Marshall had to fight their corner when setting an allied grand strategy, a completely different game.
Not all great generals are field commanders. One of the most under-rated American Generals of WW2 is Leslie McNair, who created the largest ever US army. Alanbrooke and marshal as service heads were advisers rather than commander,s buit had more influence on the allied conduct of WW2 than any single army commander.
Some of the greatest tactical leaders did not make great independent commanders. . One of the Greatest soldiers the British Commonwealth produced in WW1 and WW2 was Bernard Freyburg VC. he was a fearless warrior with a real ability to lead from the front. During the Great War he rose from Lieutenant to (30 year old) Brigadier General in three years. During this time he was awarded the VC, DSO and two bars, mentioned in dispatches six times and wounded nine times (or was it nine MID and six wounds?). In the Second World war he was an outstanding commander of the Divisional sized New Zealand Second Expeditionary Force, which became an elite Commonwealth Formation. But he is best known as the man who failed to defend Crete.
Good post Sheldrake, the only quibble I would have is your positive view of Leslie McNair. A lot of American tank men died, needlessly I believe, because of his dogmatic insistence on the primacy of the AT gun.
Having read this thread from the beginning, I found the original question open-ended enough to elicit a range of excellent opinions. The ideas expressed run the gamut of opinions from the individual to the general (no pun intended). I enjoyed reading everyone's answers. While there is debate and disagreement, it is reasoned and intelligent. I don't feel educated enough to express an opinion, but I sure enjoyed reading the range of answers. This is the kind of debate this forum thrives on. Well done. Keep going, I'm enjoying it.
Let's also remember that Marshal, Eisenhower, Bradley, et al were good generals because of the influence of their mentor, Gen. Fox Connor.
Lou...I'm surprised no one has mentioned Slim unless I'm missing it.....From ww2 early days and in charge of a brigade in Somaliland Kenya area...And to get to where he got to..a soldiers general who did the business...Admired by above and below and successful at the day job. Not many generals fit into that equation.
Somewhere on the web a while ago I read a report that compared the performance of National Guard officers (perhaps senior officers) to their Regular Army counter parts. Rather surprisingly the National Guard ones came out lookin about on par or perhaps a little better based on the critieria used.
I don't think that's a well thought out critieria. A marginal officer that tries hard to win and doesn't fear loosing can put a force in some very ackward positiions. Some of the generals who had problems in North Africa may be classic examples of this.
I had second,third and fourth thoughts reading the OP .
What are good /bad generals ? What is one using to qualify X as a bad general and Y as a good general ?
Let's take :success/failure:should we use this as a criterion ?
Was Freyberg a bad general because he lost at Crete?Was Rommel bad,because he failed in Normandy? And MG (not to open this can of worms ) And,Percival? Wainwright ? And Yamamoto ?
Thus,let's not use success/failure .But,what should one use ?
And,how to compare the general staff generals with the field commanders ?Marshall versus Eisenhower/Patton. Brooke versus /Montgomery/Slim .Keitel versus Rommel/Manstein .Guderian (field commander) versus Guderian chief of staff .,etc...
Why not :Marshall versus Keitel ?
And,why compare allied generals with Axis generals ? Why not allied generals to other allied generals ? Marshall/ Brooke,or Dill/Ironside?
Because...LJAD....we then get...Patton...or Montgomery...who was best...and we all run to other threads.
One more thing to add I think. Although German generals were professional to core they were far from perfect or faultless. There are records of their mistakes from compressing the length of Operation Barbarossa to just six months to underestimating Allied sea /air blockade of Tunisia (Kesselring I am looking at you) to delaying Operation Zitadelle (Kursk Offensive) to complately missing Bagration preparations.