Air University Review, July-August 1985

New Perspectives on World War II

Dr. Alan F. Wilt

POPULAR fascination with the Second World War seems not to have diminished but to have grown in recent years. While many books and articles on the war simply rehash or embellish long-held biases, works of considerable merit also continue to appear. Two books in the latter category are Max Hasting's stimulating appraisal of the Normandy campaign* and Martin Blumenson's provocative biography of General Mark Clark.**

*Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, 1944 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984, $17.95), 368 pages.

**Martin Blumenson, Mark Clark: The Last of the Great World War Commanders (New York: Congdon and Weed, 1984, $17.95), 306 pages.

Since the works differ in content and focus, each will be examined separately. However, first it is important to note some of their similarities. Both authors are accomplished writers, and both have a sure grasp of their subject, Hastings being best known for his treatment of the British Bomber Command,1 and Blumenson for his U.S. Army official histories and editing of the Patton Papers.2 Both of them take into account the effect of Ultra intelligence and use fresh sources (Blumenson uses General Clark's personal papers and diary, while Hastings uses interviews with both German and Allied participants). And in both instances, they are familiar with the latest scholarship and generally take an evenhanded view toward the controversies they are discussing. Blumenson, for instance, does not sidestep Clark's penchant for publicity but explains it within the context of "the normally fierce military rivalry" and, during the Italian campaign, as indicative of Clark's desire to overcome Britain's privileged position in the theater. Hastings, for his part, is not alone in considering Operation Overlord as "the decisive western battle of the Second World War," but he is not reluctant to point out shortcomings on both sides either, such as Germany's critical lack of intelligence and the Allies' inability to take Caen quickly. Overall, then, these are two well-crafted books with new insights that should interest the military professional, historian, and general reader alike.

Hastings and Blumenson also explore several common themes. One is the time-honored subject of leadership. Why was Clark an effective military leader? According to Blumenson, he possessed a proper mix of the right ingredients--highly intelligent, with a quick mind; hardworking, with the motivation to excel; loyal to superiors; demanding but fair toward subordinates; and masterful in human relations.

Hastings, of course, does not develop the principal Normandy commanders in as much depth as Blumenson does Clark, but he does have some definite viewpoints. On the positive side, he evaluates General Dwight D. Eisenhower in the following manner:

. . . history has thus far remained confident that whatever his shortcomings as a general in the field, he [Eisenhower] revealed a greatness of spirit that escaped Montgomery . . . . It remains impossible to conceive of any other Allied soldier that matched his achievement.

The British journalist-historian further thinks highly of, among others, General Omar N. Bradley and, at the corps level, the American, General J. Lawton Collins, the Britisher, Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker, and the Canadian, Lieutenant General Guy Simonds. He has, moreover, special praise for two of the air commanders, Royal Air Force Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst and Army Air Corp Major General Elwood "Pete" Quesada. "Quesada," he writes, "may claim to have done more than any other airman in the Allied ranks to originate and refine techniques of ground-air cooperation and to put them into practice. " Among the Germans, Hastings furnishes no surprise with regard to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who is lauded, though not excessively, for his efforts before and after the invasion.

But Hastings is not always charitable. Numerous commanders, German and Allied, are described as ineffective, unimaginative, stolid, or incompetent. The controversial Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery is viewed as a person having too much self-esteem but also as an officer having "the iron will to prevail" and the desire to win at all costs. In the final analysis, Hastings sees the generalship on both sides as competent, the German junior leaders as superb, and the British as better at the regimental level and in staff work than the Americans.

Another theme that Blumenson and Hastings emphasize is the importance of joint and combined operations. The Northwest African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns epitomize these crucial concepts in that they include such features as four major and numerous minor amphibious undertakings, the evolution of close air support, and the eventual involvement of seventeen nations. Clark was directly or indirectly involved in all of these Mediterranean operations, from secretly dealing with Admiral J. F. Darlan and French generals in October 1942 to heading his beloved 5th Army to commanding 15th Army Group in November 1944. These were demanding assignments requiring the utmost tact with the other services and especially with America's allies. The British were particularly difficult to deal with, since they considered Italy to be primarily their theater. But Clark got along with them and earned their respect, giving vent to his frustrations only in his diary.

Needless to say, the problems associated with joint and combined operations in the Mediterranean area were mirrored in Overlord, which was an operation of monumental proportions. The services had to get along with one another. Nevertheless, cooperative harmony among the diverse military components was not always achieved, as can be seen in the controversies between air and ground leaders, who differed in their doctrinal emphasis. In this instance, Hastings rightly points out how difficult it was to get the strategic air power advocates to shift from bombing Germany to striking transportation targets in support of Overlord. Getting agreement between American and British leaders (let alone with their other allies) also caused difficulties. But there was still a significant amount of Anglo-American cooperation at every level. Germany's problems were not of the same magnitude, though the cumbersome command system and the infighting among the army, navy, and Luftwaffe did have a negative impact on its conduct of the battle. What both of these books make quite evident is that, for military and political reasons, joint and combined efforts were of fundamental significance during both the planning and the execution phases.

TURNING to each of the works individually, one can say fairly that in general Blumenson succeeds in presenting a balanced portrait of Clark, his role in the Italian campaign, and his place in recent American military history.

Clark's early life seems typical of a boy born into a military family in 1896--attendance at a boarding school, graduation from West Point (he finished 110th out of 139), and service in World War I, where he was wounded by a shell fragment before seeing actual combat. In the interwar years, he became happily married, worked in various staff and command positions, attended Army War College, and met other "up and coming" officers. He also got to know General George C. Marshall quite well, and like many other future Army leaders, this relationship was a definite factor in Clark's rise to prominence. In December 1942, after serving as Eisenhower's deputy commander, he became head of 5th Army. During this field command assignment, his fame grew. When British Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander was moved up to become Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean, Clark, now a four-star general, replaced him as head of all land formations in Italy. After the final flush of victory, Clark commanded U.S. forces during the early years of the Austrian occupation and helped negotiate the 1953 armistice in Korea before retiring from active service. He then became president of The Citadel and devoted the remainder of his life to upgrading that famous academy (though formally retiring in 1965) and to speaking out against what he conceived to be the perils of communism. He died in April 1984.

In Blumenson's view, Clark's main contribution is to be found in the Italian campaign. The "American Eagle," as Churchill dubbed him because of his beak-like nose, was involved in most of the major battles--Salerno, Rapido River, Anzio, the Cassino operations, the drive for Rome, the Bologna failure, crossing the Po. Many, including Clark's role in them, remain controversial. Blumenson carefully examines Clark's performance and finds that it is usually solid and at times inspiring. To be sure, Clark's determination to get the 5th Army to Rome before the British caused problems; and he should have insisted more strongly that his corps commanders, especially Major General E. J. Dawley at Salerno and Major General John P. Lucas at Anzio, be more aggressive. But Blumenson explains, not always convincingly, how the difficulties and failures often were the result of particular conditions at the time or on occasion were beyond Clark's control.

Because of Blumenson's vast knowledge of the Italian fighting, his own opinions about it are also worth noting. Blumenson states:

The Italian campaign, from its beginning, had no specific aim. The Allies fighting in Italy would improvise. Without firm guidelines and expectations, they would react and respond to the German decisions, which would in large part determine the course of the combat. This was what was responsible for the postwar controversy.

Was Italy then worth it? The author's answer is yes. While it did tie down forces on both sides, this effect was less decisive on the Allies and did perhaps assist in the advances from east and west.

Blumenson has an additional goal: to place Clark alongside the most heralded American military leaders in Europe--Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton. This is no small order, especially with all of the disappointments and setbacks experienced in Italy. Blumenson therefore does not succeed in making Clark a true "American hero," but he does effectively convey Clark's substantial role in the Allied war effort.

HASTING'S book follows in the wake of John Keegan's and Carlo d' Este's recent contributions on Overlord. It is not a synthesis but truly a reinterpretation of the fighting that took place. From Hasting's standpoint, many of our previous assumptions about the campaign are open to question; and Hastings himself is not hesitant in taking the controversial stands. He expresses doubt as to whether the Mulberry harbors and the PLUTO pipeline were worth the cost and effort; contends that the Norman citizens seldom greeted the Allies with open arms but often with indifference; and thinks that the Germans should have undertaken a carefully planned retreat. In terms of air power, Hastings praises the Allies for achieving air superiority and for their effective interdiction campaign, but he attacks "the sluggishness with which ground-air cooperation developed." And using numerous examples, he shows that not everyone or every unit was brave and courageous, but that many times fear and cowardice were evident among veterans as well as inexperienced combatants.

Hastings's central theme, however, is that even in 1944 "when Allied troops met Germans on anything like equal terms, the Germans almost always prevailed." While Martin L. Van Creveld, Trevor N. Dupuy, and I, among others, have been saying this for some time, no one before has proved the hypothesis as convincingly as Hastings. Not only was the German soldier superior, but except for artillery and transport, his ground weaponry and tactics were better, too. In Hastings's considered opinion, the Allies won out not because of their better personnel, weapons, and tactics but mainly because of their overwhelming materiel superiority. He then uses the Normandy experience to draw the following lesson for today:

If a Soviet invasion force swept across Europe from the east, it would be unhelpful if contemporary British or American soldiers were trained andconditioned to believe that the level of endurance and sacrifice displayed by the Allies in Normandy would suffice to defeat the invaders.

Perhaps Hastings has gone too far in his evaluation of the difficulties surrounding Overlord, but he still provides an important corrective to an overly laudatory version of past events, even when they end in victory.

What overall recommendation can one give prospective readers of these books? While Blumenson's biography of General Clark is more restrained than Hastings's Overlord, both make for exciting yet thoughtful reading.

Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa

Notes

1. Max Hastings, Bomber Command: The Myths and Reality of the Strategic Bombing Offensive 1939-45 (New York: Dial Press, 1979).

2. Martin Blumenson, Patton Papers, 1885-1940, Vol.1 (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1972); Martin Blumenson, Patton Papers, Nineteen Forty to Nineteen Forty-Five, Vol. 2 (Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).


Contributor

Alan F. Wilt (B.S., DePauw University; M.A., Ph.D., University of Michigan) is Professor of History at Iowa State University. In 1982-83, he was visiting professor of military history at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. His boooks include The Atlantic Wall: Hitler's Defenses in the West, 1941-44 (1975) and The French Riviera Campaign of August 1944 (1981). Dr. Wilt is a previous contributor to the Review.

Disclaimer

The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.


Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor