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Book Review – Omar Bradley: General at War

By Jim DeFelice; Regnery History; 400 pages

So why does Omar Bradley have less name recognition than other top American officers of World War II?

Jim DeFelice gives Bradley the recognition the general might have garnered earlier had he not been so self-effacing.

In what’s billed as the first-ever biography of America’s last five-star general – apart from Bradley’s own memoirs – Jim DeFelice gives Bradley the recognition the general might have garnered earlier had he not been so self-effacing. DeFelice reminds us that other generals used gimmicks masterfully – Gen. George S. Patton‘s flashy, ivory-handled revolver is an example – to compel press coverage, while Bradley “did not actively seek public attention for most of the war,” DeFelice writes, “and was very reluctant and late to use the media.”

Omar Bradley: General at War

Omar Bradley: General at War, by Jim DeFelice; Regnery History; 400 pages

Born in 1893, Bradley graduated from West Point in 1915 in “the class the stars fell on:” the class produced 59 general officers, including two of five-star rank – Bradley and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall sent Bradley to North Africa in 1942 after Bradley had been in uniform for 27 years without getting near a battlefield. Marshall apparently saw Bradley as a backup to Eisenhower to become commander of U.S. forces in the region. (As DeFelice reminds us, Marshall intended to command the eventual invasion of Europe himself, although Ike ultimately got the job). Arriving just after the dismal U.S. defeat at Kasserine Pass, Bradley helped overhaul II Corps as deputy to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, later replaced Patton as its commander in Tunisia, “helped to organize and energize the Army” — writes DeFelice — and achieved good results during the invasion of Sicily.

“He established a tone of adaptability to changing combat conditions that was one of the U.S. Army’s secret weapons in World War II.”

Bradley organized and led the American invasion force in Normandy. “Overall,” writes DeFelice, “he established a tone of adaptability to changing combat conditions that was one of the U.S. Army’s secret weapons in World War II.” He directed the strategy that established the Allied victory at Falaise, created the conditions that resulted in the crossing of the American Army over the Rhine, and prepared the Army for the postwar occupation of Germany.

 

“Boring” Bradley

So why so little glory? Writes DeFelice:”Bradley (and his staff) did all of the important though ‘boring’ things required of an Army Group commander to keep his armies in the field, overcoming severe shortages and establishing the conditions necessary for victory. Despite the paucity of supplies reaching his theater at different points, Bradley was effective in helping his armies get those supplies to his units.”

Jim DeFelice

Author Jim DeFelice at the library at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where no doubt a lot of research was conducted for Omar Bradley: General at War. Photo courtesy of Jim DeFelice

DeFelice reminds us that historians often criticize Bradley over three actions: failure to close the Falaise Gap, the Battle of the Huertgen Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge. At the Falaise Gap, Bradley wanted to strike hard at the German force but was overruled thanks to an officer with larger flaws, Britain’s Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Although the Allies failed to close the gap, the battle destroyed a large part of the German army, with Bradley making key decisions at each stage. Bradley accepted blame for the intelligence failure that led to initial defeats in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle in which Americans ever fought – larger, even, than Antietam or Gettysburg.

But once the battle unfolded, Bradley made all of the right moves. The great German counteroffensive eventually was halted in hard fighting, with Bradley making most of the key decisions.

“A regular guy who rose through the ranks by hard work and ability.”

 

Strong Story

The strong personal narrative considered de rigueur in a military history nowadays becomes a challenge with Bradley, “a regular guy who rose through the ranks by hard work and ability,” but DeFelice somehow pulls it off. There isn’t much dialogue here but what there is has a ring of authenticity.

This author comes up with a few new revelations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned Bradley to the White House to discuss Italian operations and during that meeting told Bradley about the U.S. effort to develop an atomic bomb — a secret Bradley’s bosses did not know about. Bradley spent the remainder of the war in Europe fearful that Nazi Germany might get the bomb first and attach it to the nose of the V-2 rocket.

Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley and Marlene Dietrich

Then-Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley poses with actress Marlene Dietrich. Rumors have an affair between the two have long persisted. Photo courtesy of Jim DeFelice

Also in the category of untold stories is Bradley’s friendship with the beautiful actress Marlene Dietrich. The general and the actress dined alone together at least twice and probably more. Bradley gave Dietrich his greatcoat to keep her warm as the weather of 1944 turned bad. Although perceived as shy around women, Bradley could also be quite charming. So did the general and the actress have an affair? DeFelice provides a persuasive answer.

DeFelice may be overdoing it when he faults Bradley for not seeking media coverage the way Patton and others did. He writes:

So did the general and the actress have an affair? DeFelice provides a persuasive answer.

“Image was not just important in rallying his troops. A high profile in the media would have given Bradley’s plans considerably more prestige; his armies, rather than Montgomery’s, might have gotten the priority in Europe. Had that happened, the war might have been over before Christmas 1944, as many hoped in August of that year.” Moreover, “a deeper understanding of world dynamics might have helped him make arguments designed to take Berlin more quickly.”

This book is important because Bradley’s two books about himself are not. His first, A Soldier’s Story, ghost-written with one-time North Africa war correspondent A. J. Liebling, was construed by many as comparing him unfavorably to Eisenhower, Patton and Montgomery. The second, A General’s Life, was largely written by credited co-author Clay Blair after Bradley’s death in 1981.

Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley

Senior U.S. officers watch operations from the bridge of USS Augusta (CA 31), off the coast of Normandy, France, June 8, 1944. They are (from left to right): Rear Adm. Alan G. Kirk, USN, Commander Western Naval Task Force; Lt. Gen. Omar N. Bradley, U.S. Army, Commanding General, U.S. First Army; Rear Adm. Arthur D. Struble, USN, (with binoculars) Chief of Staff for Rear Adm. Kirk; and Maj. Gen. Hugh Keen, U.S. Army. Bradley organized and led the invasion of Normandy. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo

The DeFelice volume is not a full biography because it ends with the war in Europe. Bradley later was Army Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the turmoil of the late 1940s and early 1950s. A second volume may be needed. Omar Bradley: General at War remains nevertheless an impressive achievement by an author better known for collaborating on best-selling techno thrillers with Richard Marcinko (Rogue Warrior), Dale Brown, Stephen Coonts and Larry Bond.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-23906">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    I have not read the book, so I cannot comment about it per se. My questions are: How much does the author cover the pre-WWII period when Bradley used troops to put down mining strikes in Montana? Also, Bradley was quick–some critics say too quick–to pull the trigger in relieving officers of their command. Also, what was Bradley’s record regarding visits to wounded GIs compared to Patton’s? The stories of Patton visiting aid stations, hospitals, etc., to visit wounded soldiers are legion–a source of what got him into trouble in Sicily. But I’ve found few similar accounts of Bradley’s visits. My point here is to challenge the image of the “GI General” that correspondent Ernie Pyle made famous and that Bradley smartly took advantage of. Finally, Bradley asserted that Hodges was a superior general, but the track record does not bear that out. Patton would never have allowed a Battle of the Bulge or a Hurtgen Forest (he had his problems at Metz and Verdun, but managed to cut his losses). So, while Bradley was very good, and certainly more stable, than Patton, was he necessarily superior?

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-23918">

    I haven’t read the book yet, either, but I didn’t get from the review that Bradley was considered superior to Patton. Except that, of course, because of Patton’s behavior, Bradley eventually became Patton’s superior. I will certainly read this book, but I also have to say that I’m going to move A Soldier’s Story up in the queue of books I have to read as well.