Omar Bradley: General At War by Jim DeFelice
November 3, 2011 by Bob Livingston
The view most hold of Bradley probably comes from his portrayal by Karl Malden in the 1970 movie “Patton” with George C. Scott in the title role. In it, he was typically seen as Patton’s underling, even after Bradley was promoted over Patton as allied forces moved into Sicily.
But such portrayals, and in fact most histories of World War II, don’t do Bradley justice. He was far more involved than most realize in the planning and execution of the war as the battlefield moved from Africa and into Europe, especially the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Jim DeFelice seeks to burnish Bradley’s image in his new book, Omar Bradley: General At War.
Born to poor parents in rural Missouri in 1893, Bradley developed a love for mathematics and logic. It probably stemmed from his school teacher father, who regularly quizzed Bradley on math problems before bed time.
His mathematical abilities — and a little luck — earned Bradley an appointment to West Point. His luck turned on a change in the rules that allowed Congressmen to make two appointments, as opposed to one, the year Bradley applied.
But even that almost didn’t help him. DeFelice writes that Bradley became stumped on the qualifying exam’s algebra section. Normally a Bradley strong suit, for some reason his mind was blank that day. Formulas were lost to him, and the calculations were giving him trouble. Two hours into the test, he gave up, rose from his desk and approached the proctor. But the proctor, engrossed in a book, didn’t notice — or pretended not to notice — and Bradley tried again. Suddenly, the formulas returned to his memory and the calculations that had always come easily to him once again became easy. He passed the exam, though by Bradley’s recollection, just barely.
Bradley’s reaction to the news that he passed probably explains in part why his role in the war is often overlooked or even discounted. When he learned he had gained his appointment, but the first choice of his appointing Congressman had not, Bradley offered to decline the appointment in deference to the other candidate.
DeFelice writes: “I felt a twinge of guilt about Dempsey Anderson [the other candidate, whom he had met while taking the tests], as though I had taken away something that was his,” Bradley says in A General’s Life (Bradley’s autobiography). “I offered to decline the appointment, thinking he might somehow regain it, but he said, ‘Indeed not. You have won.’”
Such an attitude was typical of Bradley, who was raised to be humble, DeFelice writes. Indeed, Bradley’s actions during the American Army’s successes all through the European theater of war illustrate his humility and deference. Whenever a new town or village was liberated by allied forces under his command and as a result of his strategies, Bradley would let the field commanders enter first and receive the accolades of the townspeople, unlike Gen. George S. Patton, who would enter with sirens blaring and a band playing.
Throughout the war, like a good football coach, Bradley would seek the input and advice of his field generals before settling on his battle plans. Then, when successes were achieved, he credited the field generals and the soldiers. But during failures, he accepted the blame himself. It was practices like this, plus his habit of visiting the front line soldiers, that earned Bradley the nickname, GI General.
DeFelice does a good job of introducing Bradley the man and describing the upbringing and characteristics that explains Bradley’s behavior during the war, particularly as it relates to the idea that Bradley was a minor player and subordinate to Patton and England’s Gen. Bernard Montgomery.
But in truth, Bradley was a major player in the planning and provided strategies that were far more successful than the self-promoting but often dismal strategies of Montgomery.
DeFelice provides snippets of major operations under Bradley’s command and describes some of Bradley’s innovations in the conduct of warfare, like the union of massive air power and carpet bombing and ground forces in an operation termed “Cobra” that helped the allies break through the German forces defending behind hedgerows in France. And though the plan didn’t work exactly as Bradley had hoped because the air commanders changed their approach without getting Bradley’s approval, it nevertheless was successful enough that it came to be used in the push across Europe.
DeFelice does a good job of describing the interesting dynamic between Bradley and Patton. Eisenhower was at one time ready to give up on Patton, and the issue came to a head during the famous incident when Patton slapped a soldier who was in a field hospital suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, or battle fatigue. But Bradley was able to reign in Patton in a way that others were not. And he learned how to use Patton’s strengths and aggressiveness to maximum effect.
Likewise, DeFelice is not afraid to detail Bradley’s faults. He covers adequately the fact that Bradley was caught by surprise when the Germans massed their counterattack in the Hürtgen Forest in what would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
But what DeFelice fails to do is provide much new information about Bradley’s strategies. There is not a lot of depth in his descriptions of the planning sessions or discussions that led Bradley to make the decisions and plans he did. About all you get is that Bradley stayed up nights studying his maps, had to sell Eisenhower on his plans and often lost portions of his Army to Montgomery due to Eisenhower’s playing politics to keep the British general happy.
For the casual student of World War II, this is certainly an interesting read, and you’re bound to learn things about all the players you didn’t already know. But if you’re looking for a serious study of Bradley or the war, look elsewhere.