Fire for Effect: Invisible Man Simpson | HistoryNet MENU

Fire for Effect: Invisible Man Simpson

By Robert M. Citino
February 2018 • World War II Magazine

How does a general get famous, particularly in a war as saturated by modern media as World War II? 

You don’t necessarily have to win the war (see “Rommel”), nor do you have to lead soldiers into combat, saber in hand (Eisenhower never even came close). The most important attribute is probably charisma. You have to make good copy, or reporters won’t write about you. Think George S. Patton, a commander who couldn’t stay out of the headlines even if he tried (and he never seemed to try very hard). And once you’re in the headlines, the history books can’t be far behind. Like Patton, you might even get a tank named after you.

But requiring charisma or outrageous behavior is unfortunate, because it excludes some truly fine commanders.

Take General William H. Simpson, a long, tall son of Texas—a West Pointer (Class of 1909) who fought on the Philippine island of Mindanao against the Moros and in Mexico against Pancho Villa. He was a staff officer in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of 1918, held the usual staff and instructor positions in the peacetime army, and commanded a pair of infantry divisions stateside in the early years of World War II. Along the way, he acquired a reputation for quiet, calm confidence; a man who always got the job done with minimal fuss and maximum self-effacement.

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Headlines? Not so many, even when he led one of the four American field armies in France. His newly established Ninth Army reduced the fortress of Brest in September 1944, blasted across the Siegfried Line in November, and fought up to the Roer River. The German counterblow in the Ardennes took much of the U.S. Army by surprise, but Simpson recovered more quickly than most—rushing the 7th Armored Division to Saint Vith, where it helped blunt the Wehrmacht’s momentum. The Rhineland Campaign of January-March 1945 saw the Ninth Army on the extreme left of the Allied battle array, grinding its way up to the mighty Rhine River in some of the war’s bitterest fighting—much of it of the gritty urban variety that reporters and historians usually cannot resist. 

But apparently in this case, they could. Even Simpson’s greatest hour— the lunge across the Rhine and the great wheel to the south that helped encircle a huge German force in the Ruhr in April—did little to establish him as a man worthy of a headline. 

But perhaps this was his own choice. Simpson liked to let his corps commanders fight the tactical battle. His job was to give them the tools—the planning, administration, and supplies—they required. His command style consisted of calm and orderly staff work, expressed in daily morning conferences. And when his corps commanders succeeded, Simpson handed them the spotlight, famously allowing Major General Troy H. Middleton of VIII Corps to accept the surrender of Brest, for example. He even went where few men in the U.S. Army had gone before, serving under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery as part of the 21st Army Group, an assignment that might well have made General Patton—no fan of his British allies—suffer an aneurism. Naturally, Simpson acquitted himself fully, winning Monty’s praise for the “great skill and energy” of Ninth Army operations.

So go ahead, name the great U.S. Army generals of World War II. Line up the usual suspects: Patton, “old blood and guts”; Bradley, “the soldier’s general.” Just be sure to make room for a guy with the stirring nickname of “Bill.” 

In my fantasy, there is a tank in the U.S. Army—nothing flashy, but versatile, reliable, able to handle any mission. Call it the “Simpson.” ✯

This story was originally published in the February 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

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