There are times in combat when a commander must do the unthinkable. In the early hours of February 19, 1944, Major General Ernest N. Harmon, commander of the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division, was faced with this situation. It occurred at one of the most critical moments of World War II: the fourth day of a massive German counteroffensive on Italy’s western coast. And it involved weighing the potential loss of the tenuous Allied hold on the beachhead at Anzio against the near-certain sacrifice of an American battalion.
Operation Shingle began with great promise on January 22, 1944, when the Allies invaded the port cities of Anzio and Nettuno, some 35 miles south of Rome. Although Shingle’s objectives were deliberately vague, its purpose was to threaten the capture of Rome—rather than taking it directly—thereby drawing off German forces from the main Allied front at Cassino, roughly 80 miles to the east, where the bulk of the Allied forces in Italy were stalled and unable to advance on the Italian capital.
The initial Allied force at Anzio was composed of 40,000 British and American troops under the command of the American VI Corps—not enough to capture Rome or to seize and defend the Alban Hills, some 18 miles inland, and simultaneously secure the beachhead. In the days following the invasion, the Allies advanced their beachhead only a few miles before suffering bloody setbacks at Cisterna and Campoleone, and then reverting to defensive positions in anticipation of a German counteroffensive.
Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the wily German commander in chief in Italy, had swiftly reacted to the Allies’ slight foothold on Anzio by sending massive reinforcements to block the advance. By the night of the Allied invasion, some 20,000 German troops had arrived in the Anzio area; others were rushed there from as far away as France and Yugoslavia. By early February, nearly 125,000 soldiers of the German Fourteenth Army were deployed on the plains beneath the Alban Hills, ready to launch a decisive counteroffensive to drive the Allies back into the sea.
Hitler had decreed that his commanders at Anzio “lance the abscess south of Rome.” The Germans facing the outmanned and outgunned Allied force intended to do just that. Preliminary attacks began on February 3, and escalated in the days that followed as, one by one, American and British positions were overrun and captured. Allied possession of the beachhead became a life-or-death struggle.
The crucial phase of the battle began on February 16, when huge waves of German infantry, supported by tanks and artillery, began a relentless advance. In all of World War II there were few bloodier, grislier, or more appallingly deadly battles than those fought at Anzio. “The fury of the German assault was almost unbelievable,” the official history of the U.S. 45th Infantry Division records. One American soldier described it as “deafening, mad, screaming senseless hatred” that seemed virtually unstoppable.
The final defensive line just outside of Anzio was along a road called the Flyover. It was here that VI Corps would have to hold back the powerful German wave; otherwise, the beachhead would be lost.
The 1st Armored Division had arrived at Anzio shortly after the initial landings. Its commander, Ernie Harmon—one of a small, almost extinct breed of hard-nosed cavalry officers who excelled as commanders during the war—was nicknamed Old Gravel Voice for his distinctive rasp. On February 19, Harmon was in command of the beachhead reserve and quickly recognized that the only way to prevent the Germans from overrunning the Flyover was to counterattack and contain the enemy that morning. In the hours before dawn, however, he had also learned that a battalion of the 45th Division was occupying positions at the focal point of his proposed counterattack. There was no time to remove them from harm’s way. As the commander on the spot, Harmon was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
“If we laid down our barrage we would kill our own troops,” he later wrote. “There are times when the responsibilities of a military commander are, in the true meaning of the word, awful. To order the artillery attack might mean the death of many fine, brave American soldiers. To abandon the artillery attack would be to abandon the sortie upon which, I was convinced, the saving of the beachhead depended. The brutal, naked choice seemed to be between the lives of some hundreds of men and the loss of many thousands…. I gave the order to fire.”
Years of experience went into Harmon’s daring decision—and it was one of the primary reasons why the Anzio beachhead survived. The Allied counterattack on the morning of February 19 broke the back of the German advance, saving the beachhead and thwarting what would have been one of the greatest German triumphs of the war. The 1st Armored Division’s savage resistance earned Harmon’s “Old Ironsides” division a new nickname: the Anzio Fire Brigade. Only later did Harmon discover that the battalion he believed he had to sacrifice was actually a platoon that was in no danger. But as Harmon pointed out, this did “not change the reality of the decision I had to make. Looking back, it seems to me I could have made no other.”
Cut from the same cloth as George S. Patton—and like Patton, occasionally prone to putting his foot in his mouth and raising the ire of his superiors—Ernest Nason Harmon became one of the army’s most audacious, fearless, and respected division commanders. Built like the turret of one of his tanks, the barrel-chested Harmon—once described as “a cobra without the snake charmer”—was a blunt, no-nonsense leader whose most outstanding trait was his decisiveness. General Omar Bradley would later say that Harmon possessed “the rare combination of sound tactical judgment and boldness that together make a great commander. More than any other division commander in North Africa, he was constantly and brilliantly aggressive; in Europe he was to become our most outstanding tank commander.”
Harmon was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1894, and was orphaned at age 10. He grew up dirt poor in rural West Newbury, Vermont, under the hardscrabble conditions of rural New England at the turn of the century, where hard work was the norm and few escaped poverty. Harmon spent a year as a cadet at Norwich University before winning an appointment to West Point, where he earned the middleweight boxing title. He graduated in 1917 as a second lieutenant of cavalry and soon found himself on the battlefields of France with the last American horse cavalry unit to fight in the Great War. Like so many other officers who rose to high command in World War II, his experiences in France imbued him with abhorrence for the needless loss of life that symbolized the war of the trenches.
Harmon was also an Olympic athlete, competing in the modern pentathlon in Paris in 1924, as Patton had done in Stockholm in 1912.
During those post–World War I years, Harmon became convinced that the horse cavalry was a thing of the past, and was one of the first to embrace the new concept of the armored force, the future of which was anything but secure in the late 1930s.
By 1942 this belief had placed him at the head of one of the first two American armored divisions, as a major general in command of the 2nd Armored Division. “I hear that you think you are pretty good,” he told his troops, in his typically crusty manner. “I hear that you’ve got a commendation from the president of the United States about your abilities. What the hell does he know about it? What counts with me is what I think about your capability!”
The division was first deployed that November, landing in Morocco as part of Patton’s Western Task Force during the Allied invasion of North Africa. In early 1943, Harmon was training the division for the upcoming invasion of Sicily when he was summoned to fight a new battle.
The war was going very badly for the U.S. II Corps in Tunisia. The 1st Armored Division had been routed by a German offensive at Sidi bou Zid in February, and the subsequent debacle at Kasserine Pass, in which German field marshal Erwin Rommel inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Americans, left the division reeling.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower had sent for Harmon just before Kasserine, and ordered him to the front to help restore order to the disorganized and demoralized II Corps, which was being badly led by the inept Major General Lloyd Fredendall (see “Triumph at Kasserine Pass,” May/June 2011). While Fredendall cowered in a massive concrete bunker some 65 miles from the front lines, Harmon took charge of the battle.
He arrived too late to affect the outcome at Kasserine Pass, but he was instrumental in restoring order to a chaotic, highly perilous situation. One of his first acts was to visit a ragtag collection of Anglo-American units, called Nickforce, at Thala, some 35 miles northwest of Kasserine. Thala was the last line of defense against Rommel’s threat to rupture the Allied front with the 10th Panzer Division. The overall Allied commander in Tunisia was British Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson, who had ordered three battalions of U.S. artillery at Thala to withdraw. With no time for the niceties of a request to Anderson to cancel the order—which, given the high level of British distrust of American fighting ability, Anderson was certain to ignore—Harmon risked a court-martial for insubordination by unilaterally canceling the order: “No one goes back from here,” he commanded. His rationale was typical of his leadership and his willingness to take risks others would spurn. “I figured if I won the battle I would be forgiven,” he recalled. “If I lost, the hell with it anyway.”
The massed artillery fire that rained down upon the 10th Panzer Division at Thala, and Harmon’s fearless decision to keep Nickforce intact, were vital factors in Rommel’s decision to call off his offensive and withdraw. In the aftermath, Harmon reported to Eisenhower that Fredendall was unfit to hold command. Ike offered Harmon command of II Corps but Harmon declined, saying he could not accept the job after recommending the relief of its commander. He recommended Patton instead and went back to Morocco and the 2nd Armored Division. It was a measure of the esteem in which Harmon’s men held him that they lined the road for five miles, waving and cheering his return.
Fredendall was dismissed, and on April 6—a month after Eisenhower gave command of II Corps to Patton—he summoned Harmon to assume command of the faltering 1st Armored Division, which had been decimated at Faid and Sidi bou Zid, and was in need of a change of leadership. (The 2nd Armored Division remained in Morocco under new command, training to participate the invasion of Sicily in July 1943.)
Harmon inherited a division of men who were feeling sorry for themselves. “This battlefield no longer is going to be the graveyard of the 1st Armored,” he told the officers and senior NCOs; “it’s going to be the symbol of its resurrection.” Never one to mince words, he said that men had died unnecessarily at Sidi bou Zid and Kasserine. Some, interpreting that as a suggestion they had acted cowardly, booed Harmon. He didn’t respond, but it was the last time anyone ever booed Ernie Harmon, who quickly began to restore confidence at every level of the division.
As one of his first acts, Harmon summarily sacked the British liaison officer, who had been handpicked by the new Allied ground commander in Tunisia, British general Harold Alexander. The division staff strongly resented having a Brit in their headquarters at a time when there was a great deal of misunderstanding and bad blood between American and British commanders. General Alexander, in particular, was seriously mistrustful of American fighting ability. The Americans knew this and resented, it so Harmon’s move was a welcome one.
Harmon spent most of his time at the front, where he bullied, cajoled, lectured—and always led by example. A typical instance occurred during the final, decisive battle in Tunisia, when Harmon came upon a group of Allied tanks pinned down by heavy German antitank and machine gun fire. “All right, you follow my jeep forward,” he told the commanding officer. The sight of the division commander deliberately exposing himself to enemy fire spurred the embarrassed officer to stir his tanks into action.
As the 1st Armored Division began winning battles, anger against their new commander ebbed. By the time the Tunisia campaign ended, in May 1943, Harmon had restored credibility to the 1st Armored Division.
Despite his stern demeanor, Harmon was an authentic GI’s general, a notorious night owl who made it his business to take the best possible care of his men. On one occasion in Tunisia, he showed up at 3 a.m. on a cold rainy night where engineers were building a bridge, decided they needed coffee, and saw to it that they received it right away.
One wartime account called Harmon a legend: “A stocky figure of medium height who pops up in odd places at odd times for a friendly chat with an enlisted man. Scores of lone sentries, orderly room clerks, mess sergeants, and tank commanders on outposts have shared cigarettes with the General (who never seems to have any of his own) and have discussed the ‘big picture’ until the wee hours of the morning. A soldier with his arm in a sling would be questioned for twenty minutes by ‘Old Gravel Voice’ as to whether he was getting the best medical attention available. And woe to the mess officer if ‘Ernie’ dropped in to sample the men’s food, as he did regularly, and found it below par.”
When the 1st Armored arrived at Anzio in January 1944, the British commanders viewed Harmon with suspicion for his Patton-like habit of wearing two ivory-handled revolvers in shoulder holsters. Suspecting an imitation Patton, their first reaction was to question his gruff, profane image. However, those who saw him in action soon came to believe that, as with Patton, his external posing masked a superb military leader.
During the planning for the breakout from the Anzio beachhead in May 1944, Harmon went to extraordinary lengths to prepare the 1st Armored. Every trooper in the division was thoroughly briefed. “We did more than tell the troops the plan of attack; we made them study it,” he recalled in his postwar memoir, Combat Commander. Platoon and company commanders were taken aloft in small aircraft to study the route of advance from the air. Harmon also had a 50-square-foot terrain model constructed, showing every road, bridge, river, and village. A walkway spanning it from above allowed his men to come in shifts to study it in detail. “Day after day I would see them using sticks and twigs as pointers tracing the routes their units were to pursue,” Harmon recalled.
The result of this meticulous preparation was that, despite ferocious resistance, the 1st Armored successfully spearheaded the breakout and tore a gap in the German lines, enabling Harmon’s tanks to advance with stunning success. It was the implementation of Ernie Harmon’s philosophy of command at its best: prepare diligently and act with ruthless tenacity.
After the Allies captured Rome in early June 1944, Harmon returned to the United States. But he chafed to return to combat. His wish was soon granted when Eisenhower asked General George S. Marshall to send him back to Europe to command his former unit, the 2nd Armored Division.
By December 1944, the Allies were stalled in a stalemate in the frozen Ardennes Forest, which spans regions of Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. On December 16, Hitler gambled everything he had by launching a sudden massive counteroffensive in a last-ditch attempt to split the Allied armies. Hitler believed that with a lightning attack, his spearheads could reach and cross the Meuse River and advance into the Belgian lowlands, driving clear to Antwerp and compelling the Allies to sue for peace.
He nearly succeeded. The German spearheads advanced rapidly, driving a large wedge in the Allied lines that created the so-called bulge for which the Ardennes campaign was soon named. One of the reasons Hitler failed was Ernie Harmon and the “Hell on Wheels” 2nd Armored Division.
On December 23, the division had marched nearly 100 miles at night and, unknown to the Germans, was situated just east of the Meuse when Harmon learned that enemy tanks had been sighted near the Belgian town of Marche, only four miles from the river. The unit was the 2nd Panzer Division, one of the Wehrmacht’s best. Recognizing the unit threatened to breach the Meuse, Harmon obtained permission from his corps commander, Major General Joseph “Lightning Joe” Collins, to attack.
The attack took place soon after dawn on Christmas Day, with Harmon’s entire division—more than 10,000 fighting men—committed. What followed was a debacle for the Germans, as the 2nd Armored pounced on the 2nd Panzer with all its might and fury. “The bastards are in the bag,” Harmon exclaimed. “In the bag!”
That would prove to be true—but only after three days of savage battles. When it was over, the spearhead of the great German counteroffensive had been effectively destroyed. The 2nd Panzer Division lost 405 vehicles, including 88 tanks and assault guns, all of its artillery, an estimated 2,500 killed or wounded, and 1,200 taken prisoner.
For the third time in the war—first at Thala, then at Anzio, and now at the Bulge—Ernie Harmon’s leadership had played a vital role in the outcome of a crucial battle. The movement of his division in the dead of winter across hostile terrain was a classic example of successful blitzkrieg warfare. A VII Corps intelligence summary noted that the 2nd Armored Division attack “may well be remembered as having one of the most far reaching effects of any action of World War II, for the masterful execution of this attack by the 2d Armored Division not only stopped the German 2d Panzer Division long before it could reach [the key Belgian city of] Namur, but annihilated a great part of it…, thus bringing to a halt the greatest sustained German counter drive against Allied troops on the Continent since D-Day.” In the annals of armored warfare, the action by Harmon’s 2nd Armored is remembered as one of the most audacious and successful ever conducted by an American tank unit.
In January 1945, Harmon was given command of the XXII Corps, which he led until the end of the war. In all, 250,000 officers and men served under Harmon during World War II. One of them, Hamilton H. Howze—a battalion and regimental commander under Harmon in the 1st Armored Division who later rose to four-star rank—summed up Ernie Harmon and his accomplishments:
He was as independent as a hog on ice. But boy, he loved to fight and he understood fighting. I never knew anybody of any rank who enjoyed war as much as Ernie Harmon did. When he had everything in the division fighting he thought the world could give him nothing better.
And he had that quality of every really successful battle commander I have ever known, and that is drive. A lot of people call it leadership, but I choose to call it drive…. Ernie provided that sort of drive. He was a very ebullient, hard driving kind of guy and a fine commander. No doubt about it.
Like the other cavalry officers of his generation, the army had no use for men like him in the postwar years, and in March 1948, at age 54, Harmon retired. Two years later, he returned to Norwich University, the nation’s oldest private military college and the birthplace of ROTC, this time as its president. To the surprise of his detractors, who questioned how a profane combat officer like Ernie Harmon could possibly function effectively in such an unlikely environment, the university grew and prospered under his leadership; he held the position until 1965.
When Ernie Harmon died in 1979 at the age of 85, he left a legacy as of one of World War II’s most outstanding, courageous, and utterly fearless combat commanders. No one else in the U.S. Army successfully commanded two armored divisions (one of them twice) in combat. A veteran of two world wars, Harmon understood better than most commanders that battles are won as much by determination as by the implements of war. His explanation for that was simple and straightforward: “What a difference a will to win can make!”
Carlo D’Este is the author of the acclaimed biographies Patton: A Genius for War and Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, among other books on World War II. He was a cadet at Norwich University while Ernest N. Harmon was the school’s president. “I was on one end of the parade ground one day and could literally hear him talking to someone at the other end. We called him Old Gravel Voice and this was a classic example.”