Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 3
The first part of this series on Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower briefly profiled his background and attributes as one of the key figures of the Anglo-American coalition. The second explored his unique relationship with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This month’s installment will take a look at one of the two greatest challenges that faced Eisenhower as supreme commander of Allied forces for the invasion of Europe in 1944.
Eisenhower’s tenure as commander-in-chief of Allied forces in the Mediterranean was a difficult, often frustrating but ultimately rewarding learning experience during which he matured from a tentative, sometimes-inept commander into a true leader. By the time FDR chose him as the new supreme commander over Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, Ike had become the right man at the right time and place to assume command of the cross-Channel invasion of Normandy in 1944, (Operation Overlord). His new command was called Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).
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By far the most difficult challenge Ike faced as supreme commander was to orchestrate the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 (the subject of next month’s installment). What is not well known, however, are Eisenhower’s battles with Churchill and the Allied air barons to gain control of the strategic bomber force. His experience in the Mediterranean had taught him the hard way the vital importance of command and control of the air forces, without which he could not hope to beat Germany. Although they were nominally his subordinates, as commander-in-chief, Ike had virtually no control over the Allied air forces and their feisty, independent-minded commanders. Neither the senior Royal Air Force (RAF) nor the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) commanders subscribed to the notion that ground commanders should have a say in dictating their missions, and strongly resisted anyone controlling them.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with Lieutenant General Omar Bradley (First Army) and Major General Pete Quesada (9th Air Force) about the heavy bomber attack that preceded Operation COBRA. Photo from National Archives.
In North Africa in 1942 and 1943, RAF tactical air support of Montgomery’s Eighth Army had been outstanding, primarily thanks to Air Marshal (later Air Chief Marshal Sir) Harry Broadhurst, the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) and later commander of the Western Desert Air Force in 1943 that so ably supported British ground forces in North Africa before, during and after El Alamein. Broadhurst was a veteran airman who understood the importance of close air support of ground troops and perfected it in North Africa. By 1944, he had become the youngest air vice marshal in the RAF, and in Normandy provided the same tactical close air support to Montgomery that he had in North Africa.
During the invasion of Sicily in July 1943, Eisenhower was unable by virtue of a command structure that vested authority in the component commanders to exert control over the Allied airmen. The air barons refused to coordinate their operations with either of the ground force commanders – Montgomery and Patton – and often left Eisenhower’s Allied Force Headquarters (AFHQ) in the dark. The results were predictably disastrous airborne and glider operations and numerous friendly fire incidents in which American ground troops were bombed or strafed by U.S. tactical aircraft. The situation got so bad that, at one point during the Sicily ground campaign, the U.S. 2d Armored Division shot down an American plane in order to send a message that enough was enough.
By the time Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander in December 1943 little had changed. The strategic air commanders were only grudgingly cooperative and remained determined to chart their own course. Ike was convinced that if Overlord was to succeed, it was crucial that he assert his authority over the strategic air commanders. Accomplishing this proved to be one of his toughest challenges. Eisenhower’s remembrances of the problems and mistakes made in the Mediterranean were like an open wound he was determined not to permit to be reopened during the planning and execution of Overlord. The most important lesson that he had learned the hard way in the Mediterranean was at the top of his list: the tortuous command set-up that had left him frustrated and nearly powerless.
Eisenhower arrived in London in January 1944, adamant that something be done to control the Allied air forces. Backed by his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, he demanded and eventually gained operational control of both the tactical and strategic air forces. Pointedly noting in his war memoir, Crusade in Europe, that, "when a battle needs the last ounce of available force, the commander must not be in the position of depending upon request and negotiation to get it . . . I stated unequivocally that so long as I was in command I would accept no other solution." How Eisenhower finally gained that control was an exasperating venture through the minefields of military infighting.
By way of background, in mid-1943 it had become clear that the air war could not be won so long as Luftwaffe fighters were able to knock Allied strategic bombers from the air in droves. In June the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued a directive called Pointblank, a massive strategic bombing offensive against German industrial, war-producing targets. One of its principal aims was the destruction of the Luftwaffe fighter arm through pinpoint bombing of aviation factories by Lt. Gen, Ira Eaker’s Eighth Air Force. The concept of pinpoint bombing was a myth. "More USAAF bombs landed in fields and killed cows than hit German factories," notes historian Geoffrey Perret.  In early 1944 not only were Hermann Göring’s airplane factories still actively in business, but fighter production had actually increased, as had Allied bomber losses. Air Chief of Staff Gen. H.H. "Hap" Arnold replaced Eaker and charged Lt. Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz with responsibility for destroying the Luftwaffe.
Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the autocratic boss of the RAF’s Bomber Command, and his American counterpart, Spaatz, were zealous in their conviction that an around-the-clock strategic bombing effort would bring Germany to her knees without the necessity for a major ground campaign in Europe. With Churchill’s enthusiastic backing, for nearly two years Harris had been on a personal crusade to bring Germany to her knees. He initiated relentless night attacks against industrial targets in Germany, Italy and the Balkans, coupled with the systematic, massive area bombing of cities and high density population centers such as Berlin, Nuremberg and, later, Dresden. In late July and early August 1943 Bomber Command relentlessly destroyed Hamburg. The cost in lost lives and aircraft was astronomical, with 795 RAF bombers lost in a single night raid on Nuremberg on March 30, 1944. The expectancy that an RAF or USAAF bomber crew would survive to complete the required number of combat missions had decreased to a frighteningly low percentage. The men of Bomber Command none too affectionately referred to their commander as "Butcher" Harris.
General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, accompanied by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, watch American troops practice for the Normandy invasion. Photo from National Archives.
By the time Eisenhower assumed command of SHAEF in January 1944 it was already clear that Pointblank had failed and that unless reined in, the air barons would continue pursuing their own agenda at the expense of Overlord. The Allied airmen had always been an independent-minded group of men with a belief in air power that verged on the fanatical. The key players, Harris, Spaatz, "Hap" Arnold and Louis Brereton (commander of the Ninth Air Force, relocated from the Middle East in late 1943 to England to support Overlord), all subscribed to the almost sacrosanct big-bang tenet that the war could be won on the basis of air power alone. In November 1943, Spaatz had confidently predicted that by the spring of 1944, when round-the-clock bombing operations could take place from both England and Italy that "Germany will give up within three months."
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