History Questions: Who Was Eisenhower’s Best Subordinate?

Great commanders need great subordinates. In the campaigns in the Mediterranean and European Theaters of World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower was ably served by a number of extraordinary officers, including Mark W. Clark, George S. Patton Jr., and Omar Bradley. Each of Ike’s subordinates contributed mightily to Allied victory, but in the final analysis it was the unheralded Bradley who proved to be Ike’s indispensible lieutenant.

Of the four commanders destined to play a leading role in Europe, Eisenhower was the relative newcomer, but by mid-1942, he had surpassed Clark, Patton, and Bradley in Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall’s estimation. According to historian Martin Blumenson, within six months of Eisenhower’s assumption of command of the European Theater of Operations, U.S. Army, known as ETOUSA, the remaining three settled in as “satellites of Ike.”

Eisenhower and Patton: A Close Friendship

Although six years Eisenhower’s senior at the United States Military Academy, Patton was Eisenhower’s oldest friend. While Patton captured headlines for his frontline leadership in World War I, Eisenhower was confined to Camp Colt, Pennsylvania, where he trained the fledgling tank corps. Following the war, he and Patton crossed paths at Camp Meade in 1919, where the two developed a lasting friendship. At the time, Eisenhower was an untested warrior, while Patton was a legitimate war hero, having received the Distinguished Service Cross for gallantry in action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. At Meade, Patton commanded the light tanks of the 304th Brigade, while Eisenhower was second in command of the 305th Brigade, composed of newly manufactured Mark VIII Liberty tanks.

It was through Patton that Eisenhower met his mentor, General Fox Conner, who asked for the young Eisenhower to serve as his executive officer in Panama. Patton later bragged that, by sharing his notes with Eisenhower in 1925, Eisenhower graduated number one in his class at Fort Leavenworth the following year. Patton and Eisenhower maintained a lively correspondence between the wars, but much of the original correspondence was lost in transit when Eisenhower shipped to the Philippines in 1935.

On the eve of World War II, Lt. Col. Eisenhower, tired of desk duty, wrote his old friend, soon to be promoted to brigadier general commanding the 2nd Armored Brigade at Fort Benning, Georgia, and requested command of one of Patton’s armored regiments. Patton responded that it seemed highly probable that he [Patton] would be selected for command of one of the next two armored divisions that were being created and that Eisenhower should transfer immediately to the Armored Corps and request assignment with Patton. Patton preferred Ike as his division chief of staff but would support Eisenhower for immediate reassignment if the latter “wanted to take a chance.” Instead of working for Patton, Eisenhower was assigned elsewhere, but their paths crossed briefly in 1941 during the Texas-Louisiana maneuvers of early autumn. One year later, Patton was commanding the Western Task Force that landed at Casablanca during the invasion of North Africa.

Mark Clark: Eisenhower’s Second in Command

Second to Patton in Eisenhower’s esteem before the war was Mark Clark, known to his closest friends as Wayne. Clark was two years Eisenhower’s junior at West Point, but the small size of the corps of cadets allowed familiarity among the classes. Like Patton, Clark was a decorated veteran of the Great War. The two had no contact until 1938 when Eisenhower came to the United States from the Philippines. In October, while en route to his home station, Ike stopped at Fort Lewis, Washington, and saw Clark. The following year, Clark was instrumental in having Eisenhower reassigned to Lewis. Eisenhower reported for duty on New Year’s Day. Two years later, at the conclusion of a series of war games, Clark, now serving on the General Staff, recommended Eisenhower’s assignment to the War Plans Division in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Clark’s and Eisenhower’s careers would be inexorably linked for the remainder of the war.

When Eisenhower arrived in London in June 1942, he was accompanied by Clark, now in command of II Corps and responsible for training the American divisions now arriving in the United Kingdom. When Patton was designated commander of the western invasion force in North Africa in August, Clark reluctantly accepted Eisenhower’s invitation to relinquish command of his corps and to serve as Ike’s second in command in the capacity of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander. In that role, Clark would be the chief planner for Operation Torch.

Omar Bradley: A Spy in Patton’s Headquarters

Bradley, in turn, had the longest relationship with Eisenhower, dating back to their days on the Hudson. Both entered West Point in the summer of 1911, although Bradley was a late arrival. Like Eisenhower, Bradley was a distinguished athlete. While Ike favored football, Bradley excelled in baseball. Both selected infantry as their branch of choice. Prior to graduation, Ike wrote a brief portrait of Bradley in West Point’s yearbook, Howitzer. Ever prescient, even at this early age, Eisenhower opined that Bradley’s most “promising characteristic is ‘getting there,’ and if he keeps up the clip he’s started, some of us will someday be bragging to our grandchildren that, ‘Sure, General Bradley was a classmate of mine.’” Oddly enough, the two future commanders had little, if any, contact in the interwar years.

Their orbits finally came together in the aftermath of the Casablanca Conference of January 1943. By that time, Marshall had already designated Clark as Fifth Army commander on December 1, 1942, a personal blow to Patton, who coveted army-level command himself. Eisenhower had endorsed Marshall’s selection but noted that even though Patton came “the closest to meeting every requirement made of a commander,” Clark would deliver since Fifth Army was temporarily a training command and the “job was one largely of organization and training and in these fields Clark had no superior.”

Eisenhower’s problems worsened in February when Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inflicted a devastating defeat on U.S. forces at Kasserine Pass. Relieving the American corps commander, Eisenhower installed Patton in command of II Corps on March 5, 1943. Patton went to work on rehabilitating II Corps and rectifying the operational situation. To assist Eisenhower, General Marshall dispatched Bradley to North Africa to act as Ike’s “eyes and ears.” Ike immediately made Bradley available to Patton for any duty Patton desired. Not content to have “a spy” in his headquarters, Patton made Bradley his deputy commander.

Within weeks, Patton led II Corps to its first significant victory in Tunisia. Now that the first offensive phase was completed, Eisenhower nominated Bradley to command II Corps, while Patton returned to his job of preparing the Western Task Force for the invasion of Sicily, now scheduled for July. On July 10, the date of the amphibious landing, Patton’s command was upgraded to army level, and he assumed command of the Seventh Army. Bradley remained in command of II Corps and slogged it up the middle of Sicily while Patton garnered the headlines with his dash to Palermo, then to Messina. It was a brutal campaign that lasted a month, but the Allied victory restored the prestige of the U.S. Army. At the conclusion of Operation Husky, Ike had three lieutenant generals in theater: Clark, Patton, and Bradley in that order of seniority.

The Rise of Bradley, the Fall of Patton

Sicily marked the emergence of Bradley as Eisenhower’s most valued subordinate. Both Bradley and Patton had performed well, and Ike was quick to compliment each on his respective performance. In the midst of the recent campaign, Eisenhower had instructed war correspondent Ernie Pyle to “go and discover Bradley.” In a number of subsequent dispatches, Pyle characterized the less flamboyant Bradley as “the G.I.’s general,” making “no bones about the fact that he was a tremendous admirer” of the II Corps commander. On the eve of the invasion of France in 1944, Pyle recollected that he had spent three days with Bradley in Sicily and did not “believe he had ever known a person to be so unanimously loved and respected by the men around and under him.”

Bradley’s ascent mirrored Patton’s fall. In August 1943, the publicity surrounding Patton’s slapping of two soldiers in a field hospital severely tarnished his reputation as a field commander. On August 24, Eisenhower praised Patton’s recent conduct of the campaign, noting that “the operations of the Seventh Army in Sicily are going to be classed as a model of swift conquest by future classes in the War College in Leavenworth.” Then came the caveat. “Now in spite of this, George Patton continues to exhibit some of those unfortunate personal traits of which you and I have always known and which during this campaign caused me some most uncomfortable days.”

Recognizing Patton’s future potential, Ike informed Marshall that Patton “possesses qualities that we cannot afford to lose unless he ruins himself.” Patton was, in Ike’s opinion, a preeminent combat commander. Never slowed by caution, fatigue, or doubt, Patton drove his subordinates ruthlessly, and they in turn “turned in magnificent performances in the late show.” Despite this drive, Patton was apt at times “to display exceedingly poor judgment and unjustified temper.”

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