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How an unlikely leader taught an unprepared army to fight

Article first appeared in U.S News and World Report October 28, 2002

LATE IN THE AFTERNOON OF NOV. 5, 1942, five B-17 Flying Fortresses touched down on the Gibraltar airfield after a harrowing flight from England. Their departure had twice been postponed by bad weather; on this Thursday, fog so swaddled the Channel coast that "even the birds were walking," as one pilot reported. After flying only a hundred feet above the Atlantic to evade German fighters, the planes had circled Gibraltar for an hour until the congested runway cleared.

Staff cars pulled up to the stairs beneath each bomber to shield the arriving passengers from prying eyes. Their leader, disembarking from a plane named Red Gremlin, traveled under the nom de guerre of "General Howe." But baggage carted through town to the former convent now known as Government House was stenciled with a different name: Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, commander of Operation TORCH, the AngloAmerican invasion of North Africa scheduled to begin in less than three days. At 8 p.m. Greenwich time, he cabled London, "Command post opens Gibraltar, 2000 Zulu, 5 November. Notify all concerned."

Eisenhower left the guest suite on the second floor, ignoring the fat cask of sherry in the governor-general's drawing room, and immediately headed for the tunnel angling into Mount Misery above the harbor. A guard in the sentry box snapped a salute as the TORCH commander and his staff marched the half mile to the command center. In the future Eisenhower would jog to work, lout this 10-minute walk allowed his British hosts to describe the underground lair that would be his headquarters for the next three weeks. It also let the wary British take his measure. There was that incandescent grin, of course, said to be "worth an army corps in any campaign." But the face was far more than a smile. His eyes were wide-set and unwandering, his head broad-browed and perfectly centered over squared shoulders. Both his face and his hands moved perpetually, and he exuded a magnetic amiability that made most men want to please him. Perhaps that was because, as one admirer asserted, they intuited he was "good and right in the moral sense," or perhaps it was because, as a British air marshal concluded, "Ike has the qualities of a little boy which make you love him." No observer in that dank tunnel could guess that the next few days would be the most excruciating of the entire war for Eisenhower, or that the coming months would be the darkest in his extraordinary military and political career.

An unwanted assault
Pleased as Eisenhower was to find himself in charge at Gibraltar, he had bitterly opposed the operation he now commanded. Like most of the American military brass in the 10 months since Pearl Harbor had plunged the United States into war, he believed that the surest route to victory against the Axis powers was a cross-Channel attack into France, aimed directly at Berlin. With Germany defeated, Japan-the weaker opponent-could then be crushed in turn. "We've got to go to Europe and fight," Eisenhower had scribbled in a note to himself earlier in the year. "And we've got to quit wasting resources all over the world." Yet after months of acrimonious, secret debate, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had acceded to the British insistence in contesting the Germans and Italians on a peripheral battlefield, where the odds clearly favored Allied success. By occupying Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia-three countries still controlled by Vichy France-the Allies would regain sovereignty in the Mediterranean and build a springboard for future operations in southern Europe.

From a distance of 60 years, we can see that the North African campaign became a pivot point in American history, the place where the United States began to act like a great power-militarily, diplomatically, strategically, tacticallyduring the seven months needed to win. No large operation in World War II surpassed the invasion of North Africa in complexity, daring, risk, or-as the official U.S. military history concludes-"the degree of strategic surprise achieved." Along with the titanic battles at Stalingrad and Midway, North Africa is where the Axis enemy forever lost the initiative in World War II.

But like the first battles in virtually every American war, this campaign revealed a nation and an army unready to fight and unsure of its martial skills, yet willful and inventive enough to eventually prevail.

North Africa is where American soldiers became killing mad, where they learned to hate. Here the hard truth about combat was first revealed to many. "It is a very, very horrible war, dirty and dishonest, not at all that glamour war that we read about in the hometown papers," one soldier wrote his mother in Ohio. "For myself and the other men here, we will show no mercy. We have seen too much for that." The correspondent Ernie Pyle noted a "new professional outlook, where killing is a craft."

Finally, North Africa was where most of the West's great battle captains emerged, including figures whose names would remain familiar generations later-Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, Rommel-and others deserving rescue from obscurity. It is where the truth of William Tecumseh Sherman's postulate on command was reaffirmed: "There is a soul to an army as well as to the individual man, and no general can accomplish the full work of his army unless he commands the soul of his men, as well as their bodies and legs."

Here men capable of such leadership stepped forward, and those incapable fell by the
wayside. By war's end, one would stand above the rest.

Curious choice
His rapid rise would forever remain something of a mystery, a convergence of talent, opportunity, and fortune so improbable that to many it seemed providential. Even George S. Patton-who earlier in the year had told Eisenhower, "You are my oldest friend"-privately claimed the initials "D.D." stood for Divine Destiny. Thirty months earlier Eisenhower had been a lieutenant colonel who had never commanded even a platoon in combat, the third son of a failed Midwestern merchant turned creamery worker. Young Ike had chosen a military career because West Point provided a free education, and after an indifferent cadetship he embarked on an undistinguished career as a staff officer, stalled at the middling rank of major for 16 years. Even his first venture into the rarefied circles he would inhabit for two decades was inauspicious: The White House usher's log on Feb. 9, 1942, recorded the initial visit to the Oval Office of a "P. D. Eisenhauer."

His worldview seemed conventional, his gifts commensurate with the modesty he exuded. Yet he possessed enough depth to resist easy plumbing. "I have the feeling," the war correspondent Don Whitehead later wrote, "that he was a far more complicated man than he seemed to be-a man who shaped events with such subtlety that he left others thinking they were the architects of
those events. And he was satisfied to leave it that way." His sincerity and native fairness were so transparent that they obscured an incisive intellect. He had read much and thought much, concluding early on after the First World War that a second was inevitable-friends called him "Alarmist Ike"- and that the winning side must fight as a coalition under a unified command. He understood that in modern war the best team would win. He graduated first in his class at the Army's staff college and served six years-in Washington and the Philippines-on the personal staff of that American Machiavelli, Douglas A. MacArthur, learning courtier's arts best displayed in a palace or a headquarters.

To his intimates Eisenhower claimed he would rather be leading a division into combat, but the bravado rang hollow. As D-Day for the TORCH invasion drew near, he affected a hearty confidence. "Never felt better in my life," he had written on October 12, two days before his 52nd birthday, "and, as the big day approaches, feel that I could lick Tarzan." Yet as he moved into the Gibraltar command post, he was irritable and often depressed, smoking up to four packs of Camel cigarettes a day. To Gen. George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, he would concede only that "it has been a trifle difficult to keep up, in front of everybody, a proper attitude of confidence and optimism." Not until years later did Eisenhower acknowledge "the sober, even fearful, atmosphere of those days." For now, the need to conceal his anxieties was part of the art of generalship.

Fast start
The conquest of Morocco and Algeria proved deceptively simple. More than 100,000 American and British soldiers, dispatched in two enormous convoys from Britain and the eastern United States, splashed ashore on nine landing beaches around the northwest rim of Africa. Vichy French forces resisted, sometimes ferociously, and all sides suffered some 5,000 casualties. But after three days, a cease-fire was reached with French military commanders in North Africa.

Tens of thousands of American soldiers had heard the bullets sing during the brief campaign, and any number believed, in George Washington's fatuous phrase, that there was something charming in the sound. That was only because they had not heard many. The truth was that a callow, clumsy Army had arrived in North Africa with little notion of how to fight a world war. TORCH revealed profound shortcomings in leadership, tactics, equipment, martial elan, and common sense. Most soldiers remained wedged in the twilight between the habits of peace and the ruthlessness of war. In a note to his chief of staff, Eisenhower sensed how long the road would be: "We are just started on a great venture."

The shortcomings of the Allied host quickly became evident as they swung east toward Tunisia in hopes of occupying Tunis and the key port of Bizerte before the Axis could. But German commanders, lashed by Adolf Hitler, reacted with speed and audacity, ferrying tens of thousands of troops into Tunisia from Sicily, Italy, and southern France. By early winter, the Allied drive had stalled almost within artillery range of Tunis; foul winter weather consigned the AngloAmerican army to static trench warfare reminiscent of the Western Front in World War I.
Eisenhower moved his headquarters from Gibraltar to Algiers in late November. From the tall windows of his corner office in the Hotel St. Georges, he could watch a city going about its business with little regard to war. The shrill whine of electric trolleys muffled the muezzins' call to prayer and the chatter of schoolgirls in blue uniforms pouring from the Ecole Ste.-Genevieve down the street. For officers long trapped in Gibraltar's subterranean gloom-such wraiths were obvious by their pallor and hacking coughs-sunny Algiers offered a pleasant respite. Eisenhower was happier than most to escape the Rock; the damp lingered in his bones, afflicting him with a catarrh that would linger for months. In a message on November 22, Churchill voiced hopes that Eisenhower had "not been too much preoccupied with the political aspect" of his job as commander in chief. As for the Germans, the prime minister advised, "Go for the swine with a blithe heart." Yet blitheness was hard to come by. "It seems difficult for people at home to understand that we are in a dirty battle, with Germans pouring into Tunisia and with us having need for every man we can get to the front," Eisenhower wrote. To a staff officer he added, "My whole interest is Tunisia."

The political general
In truth he spent at least three quarters of his time worrying about political issues, particularly the complexities of reintegrating Vichy French officers into the Western alliance and of administering a million-square-mile region with nearly 20 million people. That preoccupation poorly served the Allied cause. Had Eisenhower shunted aside all distractions to focus on seizing Tunis with a battle captain's fixed purpose, the coming months might have been different. But a quarter century's habits as a staff officer, with a staff officer's meticulous attention to detail and instinctive concern for pleasing his superiors, did not slough away easily. He had yet to bend events to his iron will, to impose as well as implore, to become a commander in action as well as in title.
Those political distractions-and disgruntlement in Washington and London with his handling of the campaign-increasingly preoccupied Eisenhower and preyed on him. "For Christ's sake, do you think I want to talk politics? Goddamn it, I hate'em," he declared. Although he had no way of knowing that President Roosevelt harbored private doubts about his commanding general's judgment, Eisenhower sensed that he was expendable. Referring to his permanent, prewar rank-to which he would return if cashiered as a three-star general-he at one point muttered, "Tell [Roosevelt] I am the best damn lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army."

His inexperience as a commander was revealed most pathetically at the Casablanca conference, convened in Morocco by Roosevelt and Churchill in the first weeks of 1943 to plot grand strategy. At 2:30 p.m. on January 15, a dozen of the most senior Allied generals strolled back from lunch to a high ceilinged, semicircular banquet room off the main corridor of a resort hotel in suburban Anfa. Full of sunbeams and the fragrance of cut flowers, the room was dominated by a large rectangular table. Sentries guarded the door, where a neatly printed placard read: "Business: Chiefs of Staff Conference." This would be the third session of the combined British and American chiefs in Casablanca, and before returning to the paramount issue of a global war planning they were to hear from Eisenhower on the North African campaign and his scheme for defeating the Axis forces entrenched in Tunisia.

Poor Eisenhower: yet another room filled with bemedaled generals whose military plumage signified battlefield exploits greater than his own. He looked haggard, beset with high blood pressure, purple carpetbags beneath his eyes, and lingering traces of the grippe-exacerbated by chain smoking-that had kept him in bed for four days after Christmas. "Ike seems jittery,"
Roosevelt later commented. The flight from Algiers that morning was hardly salutary. Two engines on his Flying Fortress had failed, and at the pilot's command all passengers stood at the exits for the last 50 miles across Morocco with parachutes on. As he strode to the head of the table, the British eyed him curiously, still struggling to fathom how such a man could emerge from low-born obscurity to hold this high command.

He spoke without notes. Yes, there had been setbacks. The roads were bad, the weather lousy, the mud unspeakable. Still, British and American soldiers had learned valuable combat lessons. A new Allied offensive, Operation SATIN, was scheduled to begin in a week. The American II Corps would drive eastward toward the Mediterranean coastal town of Sfax in an effort to split Axis forces in northeast Tunisia, commanded by Gen. Hans Jiirgen von Arnim, from those pushing into the southeast, commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. If SATIN succeeded, Eisenhower added, the British 1st Army facing Arnim in the north and the British 8th Army, trailing Rommel across Libya under the command of Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery, should find new opportunities to finally exterminate the Axis bridgehead.

Listening to this recitation with predatory patience was British Gen. Alan Brooke, chief of the Imperial General Staff and perhaps the greatest soldier of the war. Having fought the Germans for more than three years, Brooke was disinclined to underestimate their ferocity, and he already had privately denounced the "ridiculous plan put up by Eisenhower" for Operation SATIN. As for the American commander himself, Brooke had been unsparing in his diary entry of Dec. 28,1942: "Eisenhower as a general is hopeless! He submerges himself in politics and neglects his military duties, partly, I am afraid, because he knows little if anything about military matters."

Now Brooke pounced on Eisenhower like a hawk on a pigeon. How, he asked in his clipped staccato, would the II Corps attack be coordinated with Anderson's 1st Army in the north and Montgomery's 8th Army in Libya? If Anderson remained bogged down, would not Arnim's forces "thin out in the north and defeat the Sfax forces in detail?" Montgomery was still a week from Tripoli, and his 8th Army would be "quite immobilized" until the shattered port there could be reopened to supply British forces. Rommel no doubt "would react like lightning" to any attack that threatened his logistics lifeline in Tunisia. The famous Desert Fox still had an estimated 80,000 German and Italian troops, not to mention Arnim's 65,000. Would not II Corps risk being trapped? In fact, an intercepted enemy message that day had disclosed that Rommel's 21st Panzer Division already had begun moving to safeguard that lifeline.

Eisenhower tried to regroup in the face of this onslaught, but he got no help from the American chiefs: Gen. Henry h. "Hap" Arnold, Adm. Ernest J. King, and Marshall, who appeared especially somnolent after a heavy lunch and had yet to open his mouth. Defensively, Eisenhower explained that he faced the dilemma of either allowing his troops "to deteriorate by remaining inactive in the mud or suffering some losses through keeping them active." The latter, he believed, "was the lesser of the two evils." Eisenhower saluted and left the room with the grim look of a man in full retreat. SATIN was soon canceled.

In his diary, Brooke dismissed the American commander in seven words: "Deficient of experience and of limited ability." Even Eisenhower's supporters feared for his future. After consoling his old friend that night at Anfa until 1:30 a.m., Patton wrote in his diary, "He thinks his thread is about to be cut. I told him he had to go to the front. He feels that he cannot, due to politics." Eisenhower's aide and confidant, Navy Cmdr. Harry C. Butcher, told his own diary: "His neck is in a noose and he knows it."

The lowest point came a month later, in mid-February 1943, at a place called Kasserine Pass. In the rugged uplands of central Tunisia, the overmatched Americans were routed by the combined Axis forces of Arnim and Rommel. Ernie Pyle described watching the onslaught by German panzers. "Brown geysers of earth and smoke began to spout," he wrote. American tanks and ammunition carriers detonated "with flames leaping and swaying. Every few seconds ... shells would go off, and the projectile would tear into the sky with a weird swhang-zing sort of noise." U.S. commanders soon realized that the main gun of their Sherman tanks could not penetrate the German Tiger tank's frontal armor even at point-blank range, while a Tiger could puncture a Sherman a mile away. No less awful was the calculation by an American soldier that a Sherman once holed took 20 minutes to burn up, and that "it takes 10 minutes for a hearty man within to perish." Across central Tunisia, battle din muffled the sounds of those hearty men within, as if they were screaming underwater.

The Americans were driven back 85 miles in a week, farther than they would retreat at the infamous "bulge" in the Belgian Ardennes two years later; U.S. casualties alone exceeded 6,000. "The proud and cocky Americans today stand humiliated by one of the greatest defeats in our history," Butcher scribbled in his diary. "There is a definite hangheadedness."

Yet Kasserine proved a tactical, temporary setback rather than a strategic defeat. Checked near the Algerian border, Rommel lacked the strength to exploit his winnings and soon withdrew to eastern Tunisia. The catastrophe was annealing for both the U.S. Army and its commander. Eisenhower's shortcomings as a field marshal had been all too evident, but he displayed vigor and determination in shoving reinforcements to the front, in redesigning American training methods, in overhauling his intelligence operation, and in sacking subordinate commanders found wanting on the battlefield.

Moreover, he studied his mistakes-the practice was always one of Eisenhower's great virtues-and absorbed the lessons for future campaigns in Italy and Western Europe. Even so, he steeled himself for the remote prospect that his first big battle might have been his last. "A necessity might arise for my relief and consequent demotion," he wrote to his son, John, a cadet at West Point. "It will not break my heart and it should not cause you any mental anguish .... Modern war is a very complicated business and governments are forced to treat individuals as pawns."

Pressing on
No relief or demotion was necessary. Building on the lessons learned over the hard winter of 1942-43, the Americans and their British allies quickly gathered themselves for a renewed campaign in the spring. Warmer weather brought a reversal of fortunes. "I have observed very frequently that it is not the man who is so brilliant [who] delivers in time of stress and strain," Eisenhower wrote John on March 12, "but rather the man who can keep on going indefinitely, doing a good straightforward job." A "good straightforward job" was now called for, and in this homely requisite the Americans found their genius. If the winter campaign in North Africa had revealed Eisenhower's infirmities, just as it revealed those of his army, spring would elicit strengths of character and competence in both the man and the host he commanded.

After months of sailing with the wind in his face, Eisenhower now found a fresh breeze at his back. His health returned, after months of chronic respiratory problems aggravated by heavy smoking. Many of his battlefield burdens were relieved by the appointments of Patton and Gen. Sir Harold Alexander as senior commanders in Tunisia. Axis deficiencies in manpower and materiel worsened as demands on the Russian front stretched the Wehrmacht thin. Montgomery's 8th Army closed on southern Tunisia, routing Rommel at Medenine-the field marshal was saved to fight another day when Hitler summoned him back to Germany-and then breaking the Axis defensive line at Mareth.The Americans under Patton defeated a furious attack at El Guettar by the 10th Panzer Division, the first real victory by the Americans against the Germans in World War II.

Allied forces poured into Tunisia so that by mid-April 20 divisions, supported by overwhelming air and naval superiority, had more than 200,000 Axis troops penned like sheep in a fold measuring 50 by 80 miles. With Eisenhower's equilibrium restored and job apparently secure, his leadership ripened with the season. He was busier than ever but more focused. "American Legion commanders, princes, and others of that stripe are nothing but a deadly bore," he wrote Marshall. "I am cutting everybody off my list [who] has not something specific to do with winning the war."

Perhaps his chief contribution to the spring campaign was to ensure that the tools needed to finish the job were at hand. After the war, a belief would take root that the successes of the American Army were attributable to overwhelming material superiority-brute strength-while setbacks could be chalked up to poor generalship. But modern war was a clash of systems: political, economic, and military. The engine of an enemy's destruction could be built only by effectively integrating forces that ranged from industrial capacity to national character to educational systems capable of producing men able to organize global war. "Eisenhower's genius seems to be that of a good chairman," the reporter Philip Jordan, once a harsh critic, told his diary. "I have changed my views of this man: He has something."

Eisenhower now radiated certitude of victory, which he saw in raw terms: good triumphing over evil after a struggle to rival the primordial brawl of angels. "We have bitter battles ahead, even in Tunisia," he wrote an old friend. "Beyond this is the more serious, long-termed prospect of getting at the guts of the enemy and tearing them out."

There were bitter battles, at Maknassy, Fondouk, Enfidaville. At Hill 609 in northern Tunisia, the Americans fought with unprecedented valor and competence, routing the Wehrmacht's crack Barenthin Regiment and, on May 3, capturing Mateur, the linchpin to Bizerte. Eisenhower visited the front repeatedly during the final drive against the Axis bridgehead; Harry Butcher thought he resembled "a hen setting on a batch of eggs ... wondering if they will ever break the shell." He saw much that was heartening. "We are learning something every day," Eisenhower wrote a friend, "and in general do not make the same mistakes twice." While admitting to Marshall only the slightest need for rest-"When this affair is all cleared up, I am going to take a 24-hour leave where no one in the world will be able to reach me"-to Butcher he proposed getting "good and drunk when Tunisia is in the bag."

He continued to sleep badly, often waking at 4 a.m. to pace and fret, puffing through a pack of cigarettes before breakfast. Despite approaching victory in Africa, there was still much to unsettle a commander. "The fighting since April 23 has had a definite influence on our thinking and calculations," he wrote Marshall. "Even the Italian, defending mountainous country, is very difficult to drive out, and the German is a real problem." The portents were unmistakable for Sicily-now chosen for the next Allied campaign and whatever battlefields lay beyond.

But only to his closest confidants did Eisenhower acknowledge the deeper impact that this
extended stay at the front had on him. Here, where the consequence of combat was most vivid, the weight of command felt heaviest. To brother Arthur he wrote of visiting "the desperately wounded," and seeing "bodies rotting on the ground and smell[ing] the stench of decaying human flesh." He had ordered so many men to their deaths, thousands upon thousands, with many thousands yet to die. He sought refuge in duty and pro patria resolve, as commanders must. "Far above my hatred of war," he told Arthur, "is the determination to smash every enemy of my country, especially Hitler and the Japs."

Conquering hero
In North Africa, at least, the enemies of his country were smashed, utterly. The last remnants of the Axis horde surrendered on May 13. Allied casualties in the seven months since the TORCH landings had exceeded 70,000, but a quarter-million German and Italian prisoners were now in Allied cages. North Africa had become a "second Stalingrad," Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, told his diary. "Our losses there are enormous." The performance of the American Army-and its theater commander-had been uneven.Yet American soldiers now knew what it was like to be bombed, shelled, and machinegunned, and to fight on. And, in the words of Winston Churchill, "one continent had been redeemed."

The Allies celebrated their victory with a long parade in Tunis on May 20,1943. Crowds six deep lined the broad avenues despite temperatures that soared into the 90s-"too damn hot to cuss," one soldier later wrote. Even after 21/2 hours in the molten sun, Eisenhower showed no sign of wilting as the last gun tubes and limbers passed the reviewing stands. A reporter described him as "lean, bronzed, and loose-limbed. He was happy as a schoolboy ... taking the salutes as the units passed. When the parade drew to an end, he smoked, laughed, and joked with the various leaders."

In fact, he had been peevish and distracted, notwithstanding the gleeful announcement from his West Point classmates that they were renaming him Ikus Africanus. "All the shouting about the Tunisian campaign leaves me utterly cold," he confided to Marshall. The concept of a victory parade appalled him, and he had tried without success to convert the event into a sober commemoration of the dead. If he seemed jolly,, the appearance was among the many masks the commander in chief had learned to wear.

No soldier in Africa had changed more-grown more than Eisenhower. He continued to pose as a small-town Kansan, insisting that he was "too simple-minded to be an intriguer or [to] attempt to be clever," and he retained the winning traits of authenticity, vigor, and integrity. He had displayed admirable grace and character under crushing strain. But he was hardly artless. Naivete provided a convenient screen for a man who was complex, shrewd, and hot-tempered. In grappling with the political complexities of both North Africa and coalition warfare, he had learned the need to obscure his own agency in certain events even as he shouldered responsibility for them. The failings of deficient commanders had taught him to be tougher, even ruthless, with subordinates. And he had learned the hardest lesson of all: that to win at war, young men must die.

His son, John, later wrote: "Before he left for Europe in 1942, I knew him as an aggressive, intelligent personality." North Africa transformed him "from a mere person to a personage ... full of authority, and truly in command." A British general observed, "One of the fascinations of the war was to see how Americans developed their great men so quickly." None more than Eisenhower.

In the fall of 1942, the general continued, Eisenhower had been "a well-trained and loyal subordinate" to his more experienced British colleagues. Now, in the summer of 1943, he was a commander. Beyond Tunis harbor, just over the horizon, another continent awaited him.

books From the writer

An Army at Dawn -- by Rick Atkinson (Author); Hardcover

Crusade : The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War -- by Rick Atkinson (Author)

The Long Gray Line -- by Rick Atkinson (Afterword)



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Last updated : Monday, November 18, 2002 0:42 AM