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Operation Husky: British Gen. Sir Harold Alexander and the Great Boundary Line Dispute

In his July 13, 1943 diary entry, written during Operation Husky, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., commander of the U.S. Seventh Army, wrote that Fourteenth Army Group Gen. Sir Harold Alexander and his staff had visited Seventh Army headquarters and “gave us the future plan of operations, which cuts us off from any possibility of taking Messina. It is noteworthy that Alexander, the Allied commander of a British and American Army, had no Americans with him. What fools we are.”

Patton was referring to the boundary change between his Seventh Army and Gen. Bernard Montgomery’s British Eighth Army that transferred to Montgomery Route 124, the road that Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s II Corps planned to use in its drive north to Messina in Operation Husky. Now the road was Montgomery’s, and Seventh Army was relegated to a support role protecting Eighth Army’s left flank.

Operation Husky

The primary Allied commanders of Operation Husky in Tunis, ca. 1943. From left to right: Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, and Adm. Sir Andrew Cunningham. Alexander may have looked the part of a general, but failed to successfully command, or control, his subordinate generals during Operation Husky. Imperial War Museum photo

The reason for Alexander’s decision was simple: the memory of the American debacle in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February. In a letter to Director of Military Operations in the War Office Lt. Gen. Frank “Simbo” Simpson, Montgomery scathingly wrote, “The real trouble with the Americans is that the soldiers won’t fight; they haven’t got the light of battle in their eyes. The reason they won’t fight is that they have no confidence in their generals.”

“. . . the most arrogant, egotistical, selfish and dangerous move in the whole of combined operations in World War II.”

—Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, commander II Corps, of Alexander’s boundary line change

Compounding the problem of anti-American prejudice was the fact that though Alexander so well looked the part of a great commander that he might have emerged from central casting, he lacked the force of will necessary to firmly hold the reins of high command. Montgomery, who liked Alexander and thought him a friend, bluntly observed, “[Alexander] is not a strong commander . . . The higher art of war is beyond him.”

As commander of Fourteenth Army Group, Alexander was also responsible for strategic planning of Husky. But Alexander neither had a plan in place (beyond the vague end-game goal of capturing Messina), nor was he temperamentally capable of reigning in his headstrong subordinates. The consequence of Alexander’s decision to give Montgomery Route 124 was that Alexander lost the last shred of his tenuous control of the campaign. As Carlo d’Este wrote in Bitter Victory: The Battle for Sicily, 1943, “[Alexander’s] decision shattered all pretense of cohesiveness and led to a situation whereby the two Army commanders virtually dictated conflicting and divisive courses of action for their respective armies and created an absurd and unnecessary personal rivalry.”

British army soldiers in action in Sicily during Operation Husky, July 23, 1943. The British advanced up the east coast of Sicily, while the Americans conducted a left hook up to Palermo. Imperial War Museum photo

British army soldiers in action in Sicily during Operation Husky, July 23, 1943. The British advanced up the east coast of Sicily, while the Americans conducted a left hook up to Palermo. Imperial War Museum photo

Bradley and his generals were furious with the change order, pleaded with Patton to get it reversed, and were astonished by Patton’s meek acceptance of it. Patton’s reticence stemmed from the fact that he had recently been severely dressed down by supreme commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for what Patton felt were unfair and trivial offenses. And because of Eisenhower’s strong Anglophilia, Patton feared that if he protested he’d be sacked. Also, unlike the American Army, where orders are to be obeyed, period, in the British Army subordinates were allowed to challenge or ignore them without career-ending consequences.

Instead, Patton requested he be allowed to attack west along coastal Route 115 to Agrigento. Alexander could hardly refuse, and gave permission provided it did not imperil Eighth Army’s flank. Using a “reconnaissance in force” subterfuge suggested by 3d Infantry Division commander Maj. Gen. Lucian Truscott, Patton then took matters into his own hands.

Their Kasserine adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, observed, “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends. . . . The Americans, it is fair to say, profited far more than the British from their experience in Africa, thus confirming the axiom that education is easier than re-education.”

The result was Patton and Montgomery fighting separate wars on the island; Montgomery slowly advancing up the east coast and Patton conducting a dramatic left hook up to Palermo and then advancing to Messina along Sicily’s northern coast. On August 16, elements of 3rd Infantry Division and 2nd Armored Division entered Messina, ahead of Eighth Army. Sicily proved the American army had learned the hard lessons of Tunisia.

Operation Husky

U.S. Army soldiers check their Sherman tank after landing at Red Beach 2, Sicily during Operation Husky, July 10, 1943. The U.S. Army soldiers put their hard-earned lessons from North Africa to use during the campaign in Sicily. U.S. Army photo

Their Kasserine adversary, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, observed, “In Tunisia the Americans had to pay a stiff price for their experience, but it brought rich dividends. . . . The Americans, it is fair to say, profited far more than the British from their experience in Africa, thus confirming the axiom that education is easier than re-education.”

Though Sicily changed Montgomery’s attitude about American troops, Alexander’s anti-American bias never left him. At a meeting in early 1945, he and Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall verbally clashed when Alexander condescendingly told Marshall, “Of course your American troops are basically trained.” Marshall, no admirer of Alexander’s, bristled and replied, “Yes, American troops start out and make every possible mistake. But after the first time, they do not repeat their mistakes. The British troops start in the same way and continue making the same mistakes over and over for a year.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill, standing nearby, quickly interceded and changed the subject.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...