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Leading Up to Becoming the Supreme Allied Commander

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker, Author of Award-winning "The Eisenhower Chronicles"

By the late 1930s, Dwight Eisenhower (Ike) was a middle-aged man who feared he’d wasted his potential in the Army. He’d never seen combat and, he believed, had never done anything to make his family proud. He spoke of future grandchildren disregarding his career as a staff officer. This period also saw estrangement between Ike and General MacArthur, his superior, as they trained the Filipino Army in preparation for the Philippines’ 1946 independence. Wrapped up in personal problems and the Far East, Ike ignored the rise of fascism in Europe. That changed in late 1938.

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Kristallnacht, a government-led pogrom against Jews across Nazi Germany, became a landmark in Ike’s life. He became obsessively anti-Nazi and these feelings reigned within him until Germany’s surrender in 1945. 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.” Ike isolated himself from many of his peers for his outspoken anti-Hitler opinions. He had friends among Manila’s Jewish community.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. Ike wrote to Milton (his brother), “Hitler should beware the fury of an aroused democracy.” Ike and Mamie (his wife) 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.”

Ike thought it was impossible for America to remain neutral when war began in Europe. He assumed 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.” The war convinced Ike to return to America. He turned down President Quezon’s offer of a raise to stay in the Philippines. He also declined 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.

The Eisenhowers returned to America 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 America 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.” Army Chief of Staff George Marshall ordered a large war exercise 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.

Ike awoke from a nap to learn that the Japanese Empire had attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Ike interpreted the attack as meaning America was engaged in a war for survival against the Axis. Marshall needed a subordinate capable of managing the War Plans Division and forming plans to combat Japan’s offenses across the Pacific. He wanted an expert on the Philippines, since Japan was attacking the colony. Ike was the obvious choice. 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 stateside. Now he feared he would spend this war behind a desk in DC.

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. He returned with the grim conclusion that the Philippines was doomed and America should not waste resources with a rescue operation. Marshall had reached the same conclusion but was testing Ike to see if he had enough ice in his veins to recommend letting his old friends fall prisoner. 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.

Ike soon committed to Marshall’s Europe first strategy. He knew strategic doctrine held that, when facing multiple enemies, a country should target the weaker enemies first. This implied that America should target Japan before Germany. But Ike argued 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.

Spring 1942 saw the Axis control one-third of the Earth’s surface, which was the high point of their power. The Nazis looked 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 Axis armies meeting in the Himalayas would signify the Old World’s fall to totalitarianism. The Allies were determined to prevent this catastrophe.

Marshall named Ike as the head of the 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. Ike had considered an Anglo-American invasion of Western Europe (France) since September 1941. In February 1942 he learned the Soviets were considering a separate peace with Germany. Ike wanted to prevent this and proposed Operation Sledgehammer, a premature invasion of France that would 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.

Eisenhower became obsessed with invading France. He believed it was the only way to win the war in Europe since it allowed the Allies to directly fight and destroy Hitler’s armies. If America did not invade France, Ike said America should forget Europe and deal with Japan. Eisenhower’s memos on invading France led to it becoming the consensus view within America’s military leadership, including George Marshall. He said America needed to stop sending forces around the world to counter various Axis offenses and instead put all of its focus on invading France. Marshall and Eisenhower failed to convince the British. 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 would 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.

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.” 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.

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. 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 Allies needed to appoint a commander for Operation Torch (the North Africa invasion). Admiral King said 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. He 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 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. Along with El Alemein and Stalingrad, Operation Torch proved a major turning point in WWII. The Vichy French kept the Allies contained within their landing sites for a week. Hitler settled 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. Ike thought the Darlan deal was pragmatic, but it sparked outrage in the American and British press. They condemned Ike for dealing 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.

FDR and Churchill met at Casablanca 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. Ike returned from Casablanca 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.

Rommel returned to Germany because of a health scare. Field Marshal 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.

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.

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. 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 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.

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. The 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 helped turn the war in the Allies’ favor and had learned from his mistakes to become an effective Supreme Commander on the Western Front.

FDR, Churchill, Stalin, and their advisors met in Tehran to discuss Allied strategy in November 1943. 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 sought after command in military history.

Part III of this series will look at Ike’s role as Supreme Commander of the Allies in Europe, from D-Day to VE Day.


Get M. B. Zucker's historical biography - "The Eisenhower Chronicles" today!


Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda

Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen Ambrose

General Ike by John Eisenhower

The Most Reasonable Of Unreasonable Men: Eisenhower As Strategic General by Lt.-Cmdr. Todd A. Kiefer

Mrs. Ike by Susan Eisenhower

Hitler vs Stalin: The Eastern Front by John Mosier

The Eisenhower Diaries

Crusade in Europe by Dwight Eisenhower


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