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Allied Commander

December 2023
3min read

Eisenhower had to coordinate forces of many different nationalities, and see to it that land, sea, and air forces worked in close harmony, observes the former prime minister of Britain.

Earl Attlee, former Labor party leader, was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1945 to 1951, and until 1955 led the Op-position party. During the war he served as Deputy Prime Minister. Shortly before his death in 1967, Earl Attlee wrote the following comment about General Eisenhower.

There are few more difficult tasks than that of being commander in chief in war of a mixed force made up of contingents drawn from different races or different nationalities. Even more difficult is that of commanding troops belonging to different sovereign states, allies in war for the time being.

Historically, perhaps the outstanding example of success is that of the great Duke of Marlborough, but there are several examples in the Second World War. Field Marshal Slim, for example, in the Burma campaign commanded British, Indian, and East and West African units and also managed to keep on good terms with the redoubtable "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. General Alexander in Italy had to command contingents from more than twenty different nations.

But the extreme example is that of General Eisenhower, and the remarkable qualities he displayed as commander in chief first in North Africa, later in the campaign against Italy, and finally in the Normandy landings — and the defeat of Hitler on the Western Front — put all the freedom-loving nations in his debt.

Not only had he to coordinate the forces of Britain and the United States but he had to see to it that the land, sea, and air forces worked in close harmony. History shows how often great enterprises, like the Walcheren expedition, failed through quarrels between the admirals and the generals. General Eisenhower, when given this assignment, had the disadvantage that he had had little experience of commanding large units in the field and lacked the prestige which comes from a great reputation. He had subordinates like Generals Montgomery and Patton, who were themselves strong personalities, while in the higher field of strategy he had to deal with great men such as Churchill and Roosevelt. On the other hand he was fortunate in having to deal with a body, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which, thanks to men like General Marshall and Sir John Dill, had already achieved great cooperation.

First let us consider the nature of the assignment with which he was entrusted, the invasion across the narrow seas which separate Britain and Europe onto a hostile shore. Never since the close of the Middle Ages had this been attempted. Philip of Spain failed. Napoleon after weeks of waiting gave it up. Hitler after Dunkirk postponed and finally abandoned Operation Sea Lion.

It involved weeks of careful planning in which land, air, and naval forces were involved. It meant that staffs both American and British had to work out together most meticulous details in planning. The seizure of a major port was out of the question. A novel enterprise had to be planned, that of throwing troops ashore on open beaches, troops some of whom had to be brought from other theaters of war and others from across the Atlantic. It required the closest cooperation between naval, army, and air staffs and their commanders and also eventually with the men of the Resistance movement in France.

Clearly, in order to get the right spirit into all those engaged, a great deal depended on the Commander in Chief, General Eisenhower. He had to make the major decisions. He was completely successful. He too had to make the bravest and most vital decision of all as to whether or not to give the order to start despite the doubtful weather prospects. This needed the highest moral courage, and fortunately, Eisenhower possessed just this.

In the later stages of the war Eisenhower was criticized for failing to advance more vigorously, thus allowing the Russians to penetrate so far to the west, with the result that Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland all fell under Communist control, and it required great efforts to save Turkey, Greece, and Austria from suffering the same fate. But this may well have been due to the policy of President Roosevelt, who to the end of his life was obsessed with the view that Britain was still an imperialist power and that every move eastward was dictated by the old selfish interests.

I was always rather sorry that Eisenhower, who had become such a father figure in America, allowed himself to be exploited by the Republican party and to stand for President. No doubt it was a natural temptation to be like Washington, first in peace and first in war, but there were other examples, notably that of Grant, to warn him of the danger of a soldier meddling in politics. As it was, he was something of a roi fainéant as President, with Dulles as mayor of the palace.

In all my meetings during the war, and afterwards when I visited him at Gettysburg, I always found him the same simple, straightforward man; the world will not forget his great services to humanity.

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