Military Career and World War II
(Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike was born a quarter-century after the Civil War ended. He and other young people were fascinated by veterans’ stories.
His mother’s collection of books sparked his interest in military history. He spent so much time reading them he neglected his chores, so his mom started locking the books in a cabinet. He found the key and kept reading without her knowledge. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
He was preoccupied as a child with the heroes and military campaigns of the Greco-Roman era. His hero was Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who fought Rome in the Second Punic War. (Eisenhower, At Ease)
Ike’s parents expected all of their sons to go to college. Ike and Edgar, his older brother, agreed to help pay for one another’s college. Ike worked for two years after high school as a night supervisor at the Bell Springs Creamery to help fund Edgar’s education. (Smith, Eisenhower: In War and Peace)
Swede Hazlett, Ike’s lifelong friend, decided to apply for admission to Annapolis Naval Academy. Ike decided to join him because he knew it would take him away from Abilene and that it would be a free education. Though a mediocre student, Ike spend two years preparing for the exam and requested letters of recommendation from anyone who mattered in Abilene. He passed the exam but was too old for Annapolis. Instead, he received an appointment to West Point. This shocked his pacifist mother. Milton said the night of Ike’s departure was the only time he saw his mother cry. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Ike said securing the West Point appointment was “a great day in my life.” (Mieczkowski, Eisenhower’s Sputnik Moment)
Ike’s class was sworn in upon their arrival. Ike said, “This was a supreme moment. A feeling came over me that the expression ‘The United States of America’ would now and henceforth mean something different than it ever had before. From here on it would be the nation I was serving, not myself.” (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
He had little interest in hazing. He only hazed a plebe once, in his third year. He told the young man that he looked like a barber. “I was a barber, sir,” the plebe replied, softly. Ike turned red and went to his room, saying, “I’m never going to crawl [haze] another plebe for as long I live… I’ve just done something that was stupid and unforgivable. I managed to make a man ashamed of the work he did to earn a living.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
He did best in math and English and worst in classes involving memorization.
One revealing experience took place in an integral calculus class. His instructor told Ike to solve a problem on the blackboard. Ike had not been paying attention and devised his own solution that was shorter than the established explanation. His professor accused Ike of cheating but another math professor was so impressed it became incorporated into the West Point curriculum. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike preferred to enjoy his classmates instead of competing with them. He did not respect students who worried about grades. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
He played on the West Point football team until he hurt his knee. He then took up poker and cigarettes. Smoking was forbidden, leading to many demerits.
He graduated in the middle of his class. The Class of 1915 became known as the “class the stars fell on” because 59 of its members became generals. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were its two biggest names.
World War I
Ike believed that the US would eventually enter WWI, despite President Wilson’s Neutrality Proclamation. (Baier, Three Days in January)
He saw the war as an opportunity for career advancement, like most young officers. He did not have the sophisticated views of war and peace that he would develop in later years.
Ike dreamed of leading tanks across No Man’s Land on the Western Front. Instead, he spent the war at Camp Meade in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, training tank units. He was assigned to go to France in November 1918, but this was thwarted by the November 11 armistice. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
He was devastated. He was a professional soldier who missed seeing action in the biggest war up to that time. His life goal until World War II was to do something that would make his family and grandchildren proud. He now feared this would never happen. He vowed to make up for this disappointment. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
One of the soldiers he trained at Camp Mead was F. Scott Fitzgerald, who would later write The Great Gatsby. Neither man thought much of the other. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike’s biggest crisis during the war was when the Spanish Influenza infected his camp. He did a good job containing it and kept Mamie and Icky safe. 175 out of 10,000 men died, which was a better average than most camps. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
George Patton and Tanks
Ike’s career in the interwar years was slow and may have discouraged lesser men. But through his friend and mentor, George Patton, General Pershing and his inner circle of subordinates who helped command the American Expeditionary Force of WWI learned of him. Their mentorship transformed him into the best staff officer in the Army.
Patton was already known in the Army for his role in Pershing’s 1916 expedition in Mexico and for leading a tank unit during the Argonne campaign of 1918. (John Eisenhower, General Ike)
In 1919, Ike and Patton tested tank guns for accuracy. They ran tanks through obstacle courses and developed ideas on tank tactics that would treat them as more than simply infantry support. Both men wrote about their ideas for the Infantry Journal. The Chief of Infantry was not pleased and threatened Ike with court-marshal if he published any more radical ideas. (John Eisenhower, General Ike)
Ike remained interested in tanks for decades. German intelligence briefings during World War II identified him as “an expert on operations of armored formations.”
Fox Conner and Panama
Icky’s death in January 1921 shattered Ike’s world and made him want a change of scene. Through Patton, Ike met Fox Conner, one of General Pershing’s subordinates in WWI. Connor saw a lot of potential in Ike and ordered Ike to follow him to the Panama Canal Zone to be his Chief of Staff.
Ike was vulnerable after his son’s death and became absorbed in Conner’s teachings. Conner’s lessons acted as a graduate school education in military strategy and tactics. He had Ike read Shakespeare, Plato, and Nietzsche. (John Eisenhower, General Ike)
Conner had Ike read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War three times and tested Ike on what he read. Clausewitz wrote that a commander must decide where his enemy’s center of gravity is. Attacking that center would force the enemy’s capitulation. The center might be a city, a garrison, or an army. During World War II, Ike decided that the Nazis’ center of gravity was the German army, which he relentlessly pursued across the Western Front. (Pipes, Ike’s Final Battle)
Conner also had Ike read and seriously consider the strategic decisions of the Civil War. This led him to focus on Ulysses Grant, who became the biggest influence on Ike’s generalship and military strategy (see “Broad-Front Strategy”). Ike adopted Grant’s strategy of overwhelming force, which would later be seen in Ike’s strategy to defeat the German army in World War II, his nuclear Massive Retaliation strategy toward the Soviets, and his sending the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock.
Conner predicted that there would be another world war within twenty years. He urged Ike to be ready for it. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Conner taught Eisenhower three lessons about war for a democracy: never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long. He emphasized the importance of coalitions in warfare and of multilateralism. (Eisenhower, At Ease)
Conner used two sayings that Ike adopted. The first was, “Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” The second was, “Every generality is false, including this one.” (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike and Mamie returned to the US in 1924. Conner arranged his appointment to the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Ike graduated number one in his class. He became a walking, talking encyclopedia of military history and was a popular lecturer at Leavenworth in the early 1930s. (Holland, Eisenhower Between the Wars)
His year at the War College was key for his preparation for the next war. He developed his ideas on strategy. (Holland, Eisenhower Between the Wars)
His analysis of Napoleon in 1934 showed his evolving views on strategy. He argued that one of Napoleon’s most innovative ideas was to thoroughly train his military so it could be deployed at any time and place he chose. This influenced the training program that General Eisenhower implemented before D-Day. (Holland, Eisenhower Between the Wars)
Ike also saw Napoleon as a forefather of Grant’s strategy of deploying overwhelming force to destroy the enemy army. Ike said that Napoleon emphasized, “the destruction of the hostile will to exist.” This contrasted with most generals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who focused on outmaneuvering the enemy army in order to capture the enemy capital. Ike preferred the Napoleon-Grant approach (see “Broad-Front Strategy”). Ike’s lack of interest in capturing symbolic targets like cities showed the origins of his controversial decision to not take Berlin in 1945. (Holland, Eisenhower Between the Wars)
Pershing in Paris
Ike was first in his class at Leavenworth and became known throughout the army. He had his pick for his next assignment. Per Mamie’s request, Ike chose to join General Pershing’s staff in France to write the official American history of WWI for the American Battle Monuments Commission. Conner recommended him for the job.
Ike studied the war and formed strong opinions about how to tell the story. He felt conventional military history was too dry and collaborated with his brother Milton, a journalist, to present the facts in a more interesting manner. This pleased Pershing but not his protégé, George Marshall. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Studying the battlefields of WWI was good preparation for Ike’s role in directing the Western Front of WWII. His analysis of French road networks influenced his strategy for pushing the German army across a broad front. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike’s visits to the French war cemeteries, such as at Verdun, made him appreciate the cost of war more than he had up to this point. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
While in France he jumped into the Seine River to save a Frenchman from drowning. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
He also attended Ferdinand Foch’s funeral. Foch was a French general who had been the Allies’ Supreme Commander in 1918, making him the predecessor to Ike’s job in WWII. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
MacArthur in Washington and the Philippines
The Eisenhowers returned to America just before the 1929 Stock Market Crash. His army salary left the family better off than most families during the Depression. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
In 1930, Ike was appointed as an aide to Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, who became his mentor and boss through the 1930s. Ike initially admired MacArthur, a hero of WWI, but later saw him as a model of how not to be a leader. (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
The Bonus Marchers, a group of WWI veterans, came to DC in 1932 demanding their payment for certificates promised to them for their service. President Hoover ordered the army to remove the Marchers. Ike knew the veterans were desperate due to the Depression and felt sorry for them. He strongly disagreed with MacArthur’s handling of the issue, saying it was a political matter, not a military one. MacArthur forcefully drove the Marchers out of their camps, creating a PR disaster. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
MacArthur loudly opposed FDR’s decision to cut military spending in the mid-30s. FDR tired of MacArthur and appointed him military advisor to Filipino President Manuel Quezon in 1935. MacArthur order Ike to accompany him, much to Ike’s distress. Ike was separated from his family for a year, until Mamie and John joined him in the Philippines in 1936. (Susan Eisenhower, Mrs. Ike)
MacArthur and Eisenhower were tasked with training a Filipino army in anticipation of the Philippines’ independence in 1946 (The Philippines had been an American colony since the Spanish-American War). Ike said that the Filipinos promised everything but delivered nothing. (The Eisenhower Diaries)
Ike was frustrated that the Roosevelt Administration would not send WWI-era weapons for the Filipino army. He concluded it was because Roosevelt did not want to upset American pacifists, since he wanted their votes in the 1936 election. (The Eisenhower Diaries)
Ike’s relationship with MacArthur deteriorated when he opposed Quezon’s decision to make MacArthur a Field Marshall in the Filipino Army and himself a brigadier general, believing it was inappropriate. The resulting antipathy lasted for the rest of their lives. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike earned his pilot’s license in the Philippines, but his friend, Jimmy Ord, died in a plane crash in early 1938. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Kristallnacht and the Outbreak of War
Ike had spent the 1930s dealing with MacArthur and training the Filipino army. He had not followed the rise of fascism in Europe or the early Axis aggression.
Kristallnacht, a government-led pogrom against Jews across Nazi Germany, became a landmark in Ike’s life. He became obsessed with his anti-Nazi feelings until Germany’s surrender in 1945. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike was shocked to learn that Hitler had many sympathizers among the Filipino population (they liked his alliance with Francisco Franco) and his fellow American officers (many were anti-Semitic). Ike generally abstained from political discussions but wrote, “arguments started between those people who for some strange reason were supporters of Hitler, and the rest of us. It was difficult to keep the arguments, even in social gatherings, under control.” (Eisenhower, At Ease)
Ike isolated himself from many of his peers for his outspoken anti-Hitler opinions. He had friends among Manila’s Jewish community. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
He followed the developing situation in Europe in 1939. He lost faith in treaties to keep the peace. (Holland, Eisenhower Between the Wars)
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Ike wrote Milton, “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike and Mamie listened to Neville Chamberlain declare war on Germany over the radio on September 3. Ike wrote in his diary, “Hitler is a power-drunk egocentric. His personal magnetism had converted large populations in Germany to his insane schemes and blindly accept his leadership. Unless he is successful in overpowering the whole world by brute force the final result will be that Germany will have to be dismembered and destroyed… Hitler’s record with the Jews, his rape of Austria, of the Czechs, the Slovaks and now the Poles is as black as that of any barbarian of the Dark Ages.” (The Eisenhower Diaries)
Most Americans opposed US entry into the European war. Ike strongly favored intervention and was prepared for it. (David Eisenhower, Going Home to Glory)
Ike thought it was impossible for America to remain neutral when war broke out in Europe. He assumed that Japan would “make no move against us until after we were committed to the European war. Moreover, I was wrong as to time. It seemed to me that we would be compelled to defend ourselves against the Axis within a year of the war’s outbreak.” (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
The beginning of the war in Europe convinced Ike to return to the US. He turned down President Quezon’s offer of a raise to stay in the Philippines. He also turned down an offer to resign the army to find places around the world for Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis. He believed that America would soon enter the war and was determined to command troops against Hitler’s forces. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The Eisenhowers returned to the US in early 1940. Later that year, the Nazi Luftwaffe tried and failed to destroy the British Royal Air Force in preparation for an invasion of Britain. Britain’s victory caused some army officers to think that the US may not enter the war after all. Ike was angered by such talk and argued that Nazi Germany threatened America’s survival. For this, his peers nicknamed him “Alarmist Ike.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Biographer Stephen Ambrose wrote, “In 1940 most people thought Ike was ten years younger than he actually was. The outdoor life and service with troops restored him to his full strength. Broad of chest and shoulder, he still had the physical grace of the natural athlete. His whole body was animated. He walked with a bounce to his step, swinging his arms, his eyes darting, missing nothing. His voice was deep and resonant. When he talked, his hands flashed through the air, as he enumerated his points on his fingers, one by one. His powers of concentration were greater than ever. He would fix his blue eyes on a listener, compelling attention and respect. He was almost completely bald now, with only a few strands of light brown hair on the back and sides of his head, but the exposed pate somehow added to his good looks, perhaps because it balanced his broad, mobile mouth. He retained his infectious grin and hearty laugh. He was mentally alert, ideas coming into his head so rapidly that his words tumbled out. Most of all, he exuded self confidence. He was good at his job, he knew it, and he knew that his superiors realized it. He expected to be called to challenging posts, and to make a major contribution to the Army and to the nation.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall ordered a large war exercise to occur in Louisiana. It was the largest exercise of its kind in American history. The two “armies” fought for control of strategic points along the Mississippi River. Ike was tasked with drafting the strategy for the winning side. Most of the talent for World War II, such as Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton, Clark, and Hodges, was revealed in this exercise. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike turned 51 years old in 1941. He had no major accomplishments, although he’d been an effective staff officer for several big names over the previous twenty years. If not for Pearl Harbor, he would have retired as a colonel unknown to history. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Pearl Harbor and the War Plans Division
Ike was awoken from a nap to learn that the Japanese Empire had attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. For Ike, the attack meant that the US was engaged in a war for survival against the Axis. He dreamt every night of fighting against Hitler’s forces. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
Army Chief of Staff George Marshall needed a subordinate capable of managing the War Plans Division to create plans to combat Japan’s offenses across the Pacific. He wanted an expert on the Philippines, since the colony was under Japanese attack. Marshall and his staff knew that Ike was the obvious choice. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike was in contact with Patton about serving under Patton’s Third Army. On December 12, he received a call from Colonel Walter Bedell Smith, who told Ike that Marshall wanted Ike in his office in Washington. Ike was disappointed. He’d spent WWI in the US. Now he feared he would spend this war behind a desk in DC. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Marshall briefed Ike on the situation in the Pacific and asked for Ike’s proposal on how to save the Philippines. Ike asked for a few hours to think of a solution. Ike returned with the grim conclusion that the Philippines was doomed and that the US should not waste resources with a rescue operation. Marshall had reached the same conclusion but was testing to see if Ike had enough ice in his veins to recommend letting his old friends fall prisoner to the Japanese. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Ike’s key recommendation for the Pacific was to keep sea lanes open to Australia, which would be a critical base of operations, as well as to Hawaii, Fiji, New Zealand, and other islands. He recommended that Marshall ignore the cries of West Coast politicians who feared a Japanese invasion, since US forces were desperately needed elsewhere. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Ike opposed FDR’s decision to order MacArthur to escape the Philippines or to give MacArthur the Medal of Honor, since it was done for symbolic rather than for military reasons. Ike himself declined the Medal of Honor after the war since he never saw combat.
Ike soon became committed to Marshall’s Europe first strategy. He knew that strategic doctrine held that, when facing multiple enemies, a country should target the weaker enemies first. This implied that the US should target Japan before Germany. But Ike believed that targeting Germany did not violate this principle. Britain and Russia were at war with Germany, so a greater portion of German firepower was already pinned down than Japanese firepower in the Far East. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Spring 1942 saw the Axis control one-third of the Earth’s surface, which was the high point of their power. The Nazis seemed poised to overrun the Soviets in the Caucasus (southern Russia) and the British in Egypt. The two German thrusts would link up in the Middle East and then meet the Japanese, who were invading Burma, in the Himalaya Mountains. The meeting of the Axis armies in the Himalayas would signify the Old World’s fall to totalitarianism. The Allies were determined to prevent this catastrophe. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Marshall named Ike as the head of War Plans Division in February 1942. Ike told Marshall that the three keys to Allied strategy should be Britain’s security, keeping Russia in the war, and defending the Middle East. He calculated that it would require the combined industrial strength of the Americans, British, and Soviets to defeat the Axis. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
Ike had considered an Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe (France) since September 1941. In February 1942 he learned that the Soviets were considering a separate peace with Germany. Ike was determined to prevent this and proposed Operation Sledgehammer, a premature invasion of France that would surely fail but would force Hitler to move units away from the Eastern Front. FDR and Marshall were interested in the idea, but Churchill vetoed it. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Eisenhower became obsessed with invading France. He believed it was the only way to win the war in Europe since it would allow the Allies to directly fight and destroy Hitler’s armies. If America did not invade France, Ike said the US should forget Europe and deal with Japan. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
Eisenhower’s memos on invading France made it the consensus view within America’s military leadership, including George Marshall. He said the US needed to stop sending forces around the world to counter various Axis offenses and instead put all of its focus on invading France. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Marshall and Eisenhower failed to convince the British of the wisdom of invading France. Instead, Churchill wanted to launch attacks against the periphery of Hitler’s empire in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. Churchill believed this would be less costly, would secure Britain’s imperial goals for the Middle East, and force Hitler’s overthrow without needing to destroy the German army in a bloody campaign. Churchill’s position was the diametric opposite of Ike’s. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
In May 1942, Marshall sent Ike to observe the new American headquarters in London. He befriended Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. They observed practice amphibious landings. Ike decided “that the initial waves of troops must be specially trained in amphibious procedures and cover a front large enough to keep the enemy from immediately focusing his defenses; that land and sea forces must train together to achieve the close coordination required for success; that the weather could make or break an amphibious operation.” (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike wrote a series of documents for Marshall that shaped America’s Pacific strategy, and that represented the American approach to Europe in Marshall’s meetings with the British within the Combined Chiefs of Staff. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
In May and June 1942, Ike wrote several documents defining the role of the future American commander of the European Theater. FDR signed off on Ike’s final draft on June 8. Marshall appointed Ike to the position. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Operation Torch and North Africa
FDR wanted American forces fighting the Germans by the end of 1942. Churchill convinced him that the only way this could happen was by invading North Africa. The British were already fighting Rommel in Egypt, and an Anglo-American landing in French-controlled North Africa (Morocco and Algeria) would let the Allies strike the Axis from both sides. Additionally, an invasion of North Africa would be much easier than invading France. FDR agreed with Churchill, overruling protests by General Marshall and Admiral King. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike called FDR’s decision “the blackest day in history.” He considered North Africa and the Mediterranean a sideshow to invading Western Europe. He compared the decision to Napoleon’s desperate return from Elba in 1815 that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo. (The Eisenhower Diaries)
The Allies needed to appoint a commander for Operation Torch. Admiral King said that Ike was the only Army officer that he and the navy could cooperate with, so he received the appointment. Ike now had to command an operation that was the diametric opposite of his strategic vision, but he was determined for Torch to succeed. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Marshall and Eisenhower feared that a landing in Morocco could lead to Franco’s Spain entering the war on Hitler’s side. Churchill said that fear was overblown. He proved correct. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike set up his command post in Gibraltar. Though he’d dreamed of commanding a large operation his entire career, he never imagined it would be in North Africa. He was nervous, though he projected optimism to his staff. He wrote, “if a man permitted himself to do so, he could get absolutely frantic about questions of weather, politics, personalities in France and Morocco, and so on. To a certain extent, a man must merely believe in his luck and figure that a certain amount of good fortune will bless us when the critical day arrives.” (The Eisenhower Diaries)
The offensive came across the Atlantic. Three Allied landings occurred on November 8, 1942, targeting Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers. The operation overcame resistance from the Luftwaffe and Vichy French and succeeded. Along with El Alemein and Stalingrad, Operation Torch proved a major turning point in WWII. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
The Vichy French kept the Allies contained within their landing sites for a week. Hitler helped settle the issue by invading and occupying Southern “Vichy” France to secure his southern flank. Admiral Francois Darlan, the commander of all Vichy forces and a Nazi collaborator, now believed he acted independently of a political superior. Darlan and Ike made a deal where the Vichy French stopped fighting, joined the Allied side, and allowed the Allies to advance. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike thought the Darlan deal was pragmatic, but it sparked outrage in the American and British press. They condemned Ike for making a deal with a Nazi sympathizer. FDR gave the deal tepid public support, but Churchill strongly endorsed it, saving Ike’s command. The controversy passed when a French Resistance fighter assassinated Darlan. Ike did not prevent the assassin’s arrest by the French colonial government, considering it a criminal rather than a legal issue. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
FDR and Churchill met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. FDR took the opportunity to announce that the Allies would accept nothing short of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Ike, like most other Allied leaders, feared this proclamation would strengthen German morale and prolong the war. He wanted FDR to emphasize law, order, private property, and the rights of Germans to govern themselves. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike returned from the Casablanca Conference to learn that his subordinates had not established defensive positions or laid mines. He ordered this to be done, but Rommel had already launched an offensive at Kassarine Pass. Rommel pushed the Americans back fifty miles. Major General Fredendall, the local American commander, failed to react. Ike predicted that Rommel had stretched his supply lines and ordered Fredendall to counter attack. Fredendall feared another German thrust and refused. Ike was correct; Rommel withdrew and escaped. Ike relieved Fredendall and replaced him with George Patton. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike feared that Kassarine Pass would be added to the list of Allied defeats, including Dunkirk, Bataan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tobruk. But he also hoped it could be considered the war’s turning point, since it proved Rommel’s desperation. (The Eisenhower Diaries)
Rommel returned to Germany because of a health scare. Field Marshall Albert Kesselring, an expert in defensive warfare, replaced him. Ike’s advance into Tunisia, where the Axis was based, was slow and cautious. Eisenhower attacked Kesselring from the West while Montgomery attacked from the East. 270,000 Axis troops surrendered in May 1943, three times the number that surrendered at Stalingrad. The war in North Africa was over. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike analyzed his performance in North Africa and was not satisfied. He believed he should have been more aggressive; victory was costly and took too long. He wrote, “I think the best way to describe our operations to date is that they have violated every recognized principle of war, are in conflict with all operational and logistical methods laid down in textbooks, and will be condemned in their entirety by all Leavenworth and War College Classes for the next twenty-five years.” (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Sicily and Italy
Churchill convinced FDR, over Marshall’s objection, that invading the Mediterranean was the proper step after North Africa. Churchill believed such a move would weaken an already collapsing Fascist Italy and would take German pressure off of Russia. Ike opposed this idea, knowing it would delay an invasion of France until 1944.
The Combined Chiefs of Staff selected Sicily as the target and picked Ike to lead the operation, despite his mixed record in North Africa. Ike picked British General Harold Alexander to be his deputy commander and selected Patton and Montgomery to lead the American and British forces. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
The invasion occurred in July 1943. It was nearly as large as the Normandy landing the following year. American forces secured the beachhead after US artillery repelled German tanks. Kesselring arrived with reinforcements, delaying Sicily’s conquest by six weeks. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike played little role in the operation after the initial invasion. Patton and Montgomery became more involved in their personal rivalry than they were in defeating Kesselring. Ike protected Patton after he slapped soldiers with PTSD. Ike privately rejoiced that Patton beat Montgomery to Messina. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
The Allies made several mistakes during the operation. The 82nd Airborne received friendly fire from American ships. Kesselring managed to escape with thousands of Axis troops. But the Allies also scored two significant victories. The fall of Sicily led to Mussolini’s ouster from power in Italy, though that country fell under German occupation. Additionally, the Allied threat to Italy and Southern Europe convinced Hitler to divert the bulk of his forces to the West, helping the Red Army at the Battle of Kursk. (Mosier, The Eastern Front)
Ike invaded Southern Italy in August 1943. He underestimated Kesselring, who tried to drive Ike’s forces back into the sea at Salerno. This was one of the most dangerous moments of the war for the Western Allies. An entire field army of two corps and four divisions was almost annihilated. Ike used every bomber and warship he had available to turn back the German offensive. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The Allied advance across Italy was a slow, bloody process. Ike, Montgomery, Bradley, and Patton were moved to Britain to prepare for Overlord in late 1943. Ike had made several mistakes in North Africa and the Mediterranean. But he had helped turn the war in the Allies’ favor and had learned from his mistakes to become an effective Supreme Commander on the Western Front. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
FDR, Churchill, Stalin, and their advisors met in Tehran to discuss Allied strategy. FDR and Stalin overruled Churchill and decided that the time had come for the Western Allies to invade France. Stalin demanded to know who would command the operation. Most thought Marshall would get the job. But FDR knew that Marshall lacked Ike’s diplomatic quality. Additionally, Ike already had three amphibious operations under his belt. FDR told Marshall the job was his if he wanted it, but Marshall told the president to pick whomever he thought was best. “Then it will be Eisenhower,” Roosevelt declared. It was the most coveted command in the history of warfare. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
The Cost of War and Hatred of the Nazis
He felt, like many professional soldiers, the excitement of locking strategic wits with the enemy. He believed, as Robert E Lee said, “It is good that war is so terrible, should we grow fond of it.” (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)
Ike saw war as tragic, not as heroic. No general of WWII cared more about the lives of his soldiers. He wanted to spare them and prioritized their lives higher than any objective besides ultimate victory. (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
The only thing he hated more than war was the Nazi Party. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike became bitterer toward the Nazis as the war continued. He received hundreds of letters from grieving or worried families asking about their boys. He answered them all, and knew “no more effective means of developing an undying hatred of those responsible for aggressive war than to assume the obligation of attempting to express sympathy to families bereaved by it.” (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
He warned Americans they would lose the freedom of speech, worship, and profession if the Nazis won the war. They would lose the right to a fair trial. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike viewed WWII in idealistic terms. He said that, “No other war in history has so definitely lined up the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship on the one hand against those of human rights and individual liberty.”
He saw the war as a holy war, a religious “crusade” against demonic Nazi tyranny. He would later refer to God as the “Supreme Overlord,” sharing the codename of the Normandy invasion, signifying a connection between the Allied effort and basic morality. (David Eisenhower, Going Home to Glory)
He viewed Hitler and the Nazis as the personification of evil. His hatred of them peaked when he witnessed the concentration camps at the end of the war. (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
Hitler, meanwhile, dismissed Ike as a mindless military bureaucrat who was overly cautious and a traitor to the German race, though he hated Ike’s ability to forge the West into a coalition.
Ike’s emphasis on Allied unity, particularly between the Americans and the British, was perhaps his greatest contribution to the Allied victory in WWII. An inability to effectively cooperate would have doomed the Allies on the Western Front. There was no precedent for the degree of Anglo-American integration under Ike’s leadership. Successful coalitions had always had a dominant partner. Most fell apart. Even Napoleon’s reputation declined when it was realized he always fought coalitions and could therefore divide his enemies. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
Ike restrained his national prejudices, which he strongly felt, to keep the Americans and British on the same team. He said, “There will never be praise or blame for the British as British or the Americans as Americans. We are all in this together as Allies. We will fight it soldier to soldier. Men will be praised or blamed for what they do, not for their nationality.”
He relieved an American commander for calling a British officer “a British son of a bitch.” (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Ike had warm relations with most of the British high command, including Churchill, generals and admirals, and journalists. Only Brooke and Montgomery remained critical of him. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Churchill threatened Allied unity because he wanted to make the major decisions. Ike knew Churchill could only be a threat if the Americans were divided, so Ike worked to preserve consensus within the Roosevelt-Marshall-Eisenhower triumvirate. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Churchill often kept Ike awake until 0200 trying to persuade him. This was most acute on Operation Anvil, the invasion of Southern France. Churchill preferred to invade the Balkans to counter Soviet influence. Ike said “no” every way he could. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
Ike said the title “Supreme Commander” was too extravagant for a “Kansas farm boy.” It “sounds like ‘Sultan.’” (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
He established SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944 in London. His core group of aids included Chief of Staff Major General Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, LCDR Harry C Butcher, USNR, and Major Ernest R “Tex” Lee. Most of his immediate subordinates were British, to emphasize Allied unity. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
The Combined Chiefs of Staff decided on Normandy as the invasion site because they thought it would fool the Germans, who believed the Allies would land at Pas de Calais. The invasion was scheduled for May 1944, but was delayed until June because of the bad weather.
Ike wanted the Germans to believe that Pas de Calais was the real target, so he appointed Patton as commander of a fictitious army positioned to invade Pas de Calais. A second fictitious army threatened Norway. The Germans placed forces to defend both regions, weakening the forces in Normandy. It would take days for Hitler to realize that the Normandy landing was not a diversion.
Ike appointed a weather team shortly after being appointed to Overlord. He educated himself on weather theory. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike had little authority over the American and British air forces during most of the war. He said this was unacceptable and needed to direct them at will in the months before and after Overlord. He threatened to resign if this demand was not met. Churchill relented.
Ike first used the American Eighth Air Force to gain aerial superiority over Western Europe. He directed a large group of B17 Bombers to bomb Berlin, forcing the Luftwaffe to defend Hitler’s capital. American P51 fighter planes then swooped down to destroy the German planes. This was done several times in March and April 1944 until the Luftwaffe was a shadow of its former self. (Ethel, Target Berlin)
Ike’s next aerial strategy led him into conflict with Tooey Spatz, the commander of the American Eighth Air Force. Ike called for a Transportation Plan, which meant using the Anglo-American air forces to target French infrastructure to limit Germany’s response to Overlord. He ignored the strict line between air and ground forces and wanted to use them for a single objective. Spatz, on the other hand, wanted to use the air force to target German oil reserves. Ike, with his temporary command of the air forces, got his way. He used his ground and air forces in synergy, instead of sending them in two different directions. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Ike planned the operation through the spring of 1944. Montgomery was his main collaborator. Monty said he was honored to help Ike on this task. Ike said that, “Plans are useless, but planning is everything.”
Ike considered the French under German occupation to be slaves.
The invasion was scheduled for June 5. Ike delayed it for 24 hours because of the weather. His weather team predicted the storm might break by June 6. Ike sat down with his advisors on June 4 to discuss another postponement. If the weather prediction was wrong, the invasion would be destroyed by the storm. But another delay would push the invasion back to July at the earliest (it would have been delayed again because the fallback days saw the worst storm in fifty years strike the English Channel). His advisors could not agree on what to do. Finally, Ike quietly said, “Ok, let’s go.” The invasion would take place on June 6. It was to be the climactic moment of the war. (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
Failure may have permanently delayed an Allied attack from the West. Churchill feared a vote of “no confidence” in Parliament. FDR feared losing the 1944 election to a candidate promising to turn America’s attention against Japan. Ike told Bradley, “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives. This operation is planned as a victory, and that's the way it's going to be. We're going down there, and we're throwing everything we have into it, and we're going to make it a success.” (Life Magazine, Remembering the Battle that Won the War)
Ike and Montgomery spent June 5 visiting Allied soldiers to see them off. Ike visited the 101st Airborne Division, who was excited to see the Supreme Commander. He walked from group to group, shaking hands and asking what they did before the war. Ike returned to Kay Summersby when the paratroopers were ready to go. “It’s very hard really to look a solider in the eye when you fear you are sending him to his death,” Ike said. “I hope to God I know what I’m doing.” (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
He wrote a letter that he would give to the press if the invasion failed. It read, “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” (Korda, Ike: An American Hero)
D-Day – June 6, 1944
It was the greatest military operation of all time, a head-on assault against Hitler’s Fortress Europe, whose defenses were commanded by Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. The operation involved 10,000 planes and 7,000 ships. 160,000 Allied troops stormed the five Normandy beaches – Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah. (Baker, America: The Story of Us)
The airborne stopped German reinforcements from destroying the Allied troops before the beachheads were secure.
Ike sent his troops into a situation from which there was no retreat. They had to penetrate the German fortresses or else die on the beaches. Such brutal tactics horrified Eisenhower; Kay Summersby said he was shaking so violently on D-Day that he could not light a cigarette. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
D-Day was a logistic miracle. All five beaches were secure by the day’s end, despite a bloody crisis at Omaha. Overlord was hugely complex, enormously heroic, and the defining moment of Eisenhower’s career. (History’s Verdict: Eisenhower)
Breakout from Normandy and Liberation of Paris
Ike became depressed after D-Day. He ran out of steam and had little to do as his subordinates directed the operation. Montgomery, Bradley, and Devers led the three Army Groups across the Western Front. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
The Allies and Germans were locked in a stalemate in Normandy for six weeks. Montgomery kept pressure at Caen while Bradley and Patton broke through the German line at St Lo, further south. Hitler launched an offensive toward Avranches in an attempt to divide the American and British. This gave Ike the opportunity to trap a huge group of German soldiers in the Falaise Pocket. He personally wrote all of the Allied soldiers in Normandy asking for their best efforts. Ike and Bradley coordinated Allied air power and artillery to protect their flank as Bradley’s forces swung around the German salient from the south. Montgomery moved too slowly, letting over 40,000 German soldiers escape. Nevertheless, Ike’s move captured 50,000 German soldiers and killed 10,000. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
The Falaise Pocket devastated the German army, which reeled out of Normandy. Eisenhower ordered his forces’ advance. He initially wanted to bypass Paris to pursue the retreating German army, a notion he learned from Ulysses Grant. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Hitler had ordered his generals to destroy Paris before the Allies could get there. They had refused to do so, and de Gaulle convinced Ike to liberate Paris before Hitler had another chance to destroy it. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
French and American forces entered Paris on August 25. Ike now believed that victory in Europe was inevitable. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
FDR and the State Department ordered Ike to not allow de Gaulle to enter Paris. They feared he could become a dictator. Ike ignored them and sent him anyway, believing that de Gaulle could unify the French people and prevent a civil war.
Ike let de Gaulle have two days in Paris before entering the city with Bradley. This gesture of respect won Ike the adulation of the French people. (Kiefer, The Most Reasonable of Unreasonable Men)
Americans paraded through the city. Ike set up his headquarters at Versailles.
The Allies spent the autumn of 1944 pushing the Wehrmacht back to the German border. Thus began one of the most controversial strategic debates of WWII, pitting Eisenhower against Montgomery.
Ike supported the strategy used by Ulysses Grant in the Civil War. Previous Union generals had targeted Richmond, the Confederate capital, as their goal. Grant targeted Lee’s army directly. Grant spent eleven months in 1864-65 incessantly attacking Lee’s army with overwhelming force, trying to kill as many Confederate soldiers as possible. Grant believed that this would guarantee the Confederacy’s surrender. The result was horrific, but this strategy ended the Civil War. (Smith, Grant)
General Pershing used this strategy in WWI, and Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf used it in the Gulf War. (Smith, Grant)
Montgomery wanted to outsmart the Germans by unbalancing them and then punching a hole in the German line with a narrow thrust. He would push his army through this hole and make a beeline for Berlin, ending the war. (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Ike wanted to outfight the Germans. He thought capturing Berlin would not end the war, and criticized Montgomery’s plan for leaving the German army intact. He said, “People of the strength and war-like tendencies of the Germans do not give in; they must be beaten to the ground.” (Metz, Eisenhower as Strategist)
Ike’s strategy was to push the Germans back across a broad front. The German army was slowly destroyed in a war of attrition. It was an unimaginative, cold-blooded strategy, but Ike believed that the Wehrmacht had to be destroyed to end the war. He only threatened symbolic targets, like the Ruhr or Berlin, because he knew the German military would defend them, giving him the opportunity to destroy the German forces. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Battle of the Bulge
Allied supply lines were stretched to their breaking point as they approached the German border in late 1944. The Allied advance slowed. Ike’s broad-front strategy left certain sections of the front vulnerable. No place was more vulnerable than the Ardennes Forest, in Belgium, which separated the American and British armies. (MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets)
Hitler had been planning a counter attack since Paris was liberated. He seized his chance on December 16, 1944, while a blizzard grounded Allied air power. Like a cornered, dangerous animal, he lashed out one last time. (MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets)
Hitler’s plan was to attack through the thinly held Ardennes Forest, cross the Meuse River, and capture the port of Antwerp, which was the Allies’ most important supply center. The Allied advance would be crippled, Hitler would win the war on the Western Front, and everything the Allies worked for since D-Day would be undone. (MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets)
General Hodges, the commander in charge of the Ardennes, suffered an emotional breakdown. Ike kept his cool and saw the offensive as an opportunity. He was always looking for ways to destroy the German army, and here it was revealing itself from behind the defensive Siegfried Line. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
In a bold move, he did not reinforce the Ardennes, allowing the Germans to stretch their supply lines as they, through the fiercest fighting of the war, pushed American armies back to within eight miles of the Meuse. When the blizzard passed, Eisenhower launched air strikes against the Germans, crippling their oil supply. He moved the 101st Airborne to Bastogne, denying Hitler control of a major road-system. (Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace)
Ike gave control of all American forces north of the Bulge to Montgomery, Ike’s high point as a true Allied commander. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike ordered Patton to attack the southern part of the Bulge and fight his way to Bastogne. They were so in-sync that Patton had already moved his army before Ike gave the order. (MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets)
The weather was negative thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Ike heard of hundreds of displaced soldiers and knew they were trying to escape the slaughter. He was tempted to put them in the stockade, just do they would not have to go back into the battle. (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)
SHAEF intelligence figured out that a group of sixty English-speaking Nazis, disguised as Americans, were assigned to assassinate Ike. Hitler believed that Ike’s death, along with dividing the American and British armies with the Ardennes offensive, would secure his victory on the Western Front. The assassins were quickly captured, but Ike was forced to spend the remainder of the battle as a virtual prisoner in Versailles. He refused to believe that Hitler had tried to assassinate him for several years. (David Eisenhower, Coming Home to Glory)
Montgomery and Patton’s armies met in mid-January 1945, ending the battle. It was the largest and costliest battle in American history. The Americans lost 90,000 soldiers, while the Germans lost 120,000. This time, the Germans did not recover from their defeat. The end game of the European Theater had arrived. (MacDonald, A Time for Trumpets)
1945 began with the Americans and British invading Germany from the West while the Soviets invaded from the East. Eisenhower had Montgomery and Bradley encircle and capture the Ruhr, an industrial stronghold for Germany. His plan was based on Hannibal’s victory at Cannae in the Second Punic War. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Hitler insisted on fighting west of the Rhine River. Ike took the opportunity to crush as many German units as possible. Ike believed that Hitler was to blame any time the Germans did something illogical, whether it was defending the Rhine or spending money on ineffectual V weapons. (David Eisenhower, Coming Home to Glory)
Churchill, Brooke, Montgomery, and Patton demanded that Ike get to Berlin before the Soviets. But Ike and Bradley believed that Berlin was a symbolic, rather than a strategic, target. Bradley estimated taking Berlin could cost 100,000 lives, which was a lot for a symbol. Ike decided to let the Soviets capture Berlin and instead directed his forces to destroy what was left of the German army. This final, controversial decision, once again showed Grant’s influence on Ike. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Political opponents in the 1952 election claimed Ike made a mistake in letting the Soviets capture Berlin. Ike asked for a volunteer to pick the 100,000 mothers whose “sons would have been sacrificed for Berlin.” (Pipes, Ike’s Final Battle)
Ike heard rumors of the Holocaust during the war. He wrote to Mamie in 1942, “What is going on in German-occupied Europe, under the cover of war, almost defies belief, and makes me glad that I am in a position, or will be, to punish it. I have never believed in revenge, but I have the strongest possible belief in justice, and the need to impose it on evil doers. We are engaged in a crusade.” (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
Germany’s collapse revealed the Nazis’ most famous and most sinister legacy.
Patton liberated a camp near Gotha. He told Ike to come see. Ike was visibly shaken. Patton vomited.
Ike wrote Mamie, “I visited a German internment camp. I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world! It was horrible.” (Johnson, Eisenhower: A Life)
Ike cabled home to ask for reporters and legislators to witness the camp. He recorded evidence for the Nuremberg Trials and for future generations. He predicted that there would be Holocaust deniers. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The mayor of Gotha and his wife committed suicide when they saw the camp. Ike said there might be hope that Germany could be redeemed. (Thomas, Ike’s Bluff)
Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Ike refused to believe his nemesis was dead. He thought it was a Nazi plot and that Hitler had escaped Europe. But Ike said it did not matter. Hitler as a political force was dead. (Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe)
German General Jodl came to Eisenhower’s headquarters at Reims to surrender on behalf of the Third Reich. Ike refused to attend the surrender ceremony. Walter Smith, Ike’s Chief of Staff, presided. Attending would have meant having to shake Jodl’s hand, and Ike refused to shake hands with a Nazi. (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Ike met Jodl immediate after the surrender, saying that Jodl would be held responsible if the surrender terms were not met. Ike’s face seethed with contempt. He was not a gracious victor. Even Telek, Ike’s dog, growled at Jodl. (Pipes, Ike’s Final Battle)
Nazi Germany, the most significant threat to world peace in human history, ceased to exist.
Ike’s staff tried to put together a dramatic message to announce the war’s end. Ike rejected their proposals. Like Grant’s message to Lincoln at Appomattox, Ike’s telegram to Marshall was short: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)
Marshall congratulated Ike: “You have completed your mission with the greatest victory in the history of warfare. You have commanded with outstanding success the most powerful military force that has ever been assembled… You have made history, great history for the good of mankind and you have stood for all we hope for and admire in an officer in the United States Army.” (Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier and President)