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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.