Fredendall's Art of War | HistoryNet MENU

Fredendall’s Art of War

By Robert M. Citino
3/4/2010 • Fire for Effect

A few months ago I wrote a piece on this blog about the May 1941 German airdrop on Crete (Judge Not: Colonel Andrew’s ‘Mistake’ at Maleme, October 11th, 2009).  The thrust of it was a defense of LTC L.W. Andrew’s actions on Hill 107.  Usually blamed for abandoning the position and thus allowing the Germans to seize the crucial airfield at Maleme, he was, I thought, more a victim of war’s uncertainty than anything else.

Not everyone agreed with me, I know, but I have always tried to avoid what I feel is a simplistic “blame the general” approach to military history.  War is a highly complex undertaking, and modern war especially so.  A million things can go wrong in any large-scale encounter, and just enough of them usually do go wrong to scramble even the most skillfully laid plans.  I have always felt that there are a lot of people–scholars, buffs, and operators alike–who like to quote Clausewitz on chance and uncertainty and the “fog of war” and then turn around and claim that what General X should have done in a given historical situation was “perfectly obvious.”  It just doesn’t compute to hold both of these points of view simultaneously.

At the same time, I have come to realize that, occasionally, it is hard to avoid blaming the general.  And Exhibit A for this notion would have to be LTG Lloyd Fredendall, US II Corps commander during the Tunisian campaign, a man  best known for his role in the near-debacle at Kasserine Pass in February 1943.  Holed up in the vast underground bunker complex he had built at “Speedy Valley,” 100 miles from where his men were fighting and dying at Sidi Bou Zid on the first day, Fredendall seemed to go to pieces as one piece of bad news from the front followed another.  Witnesses speak of him chain smoking, perhaps even drinking, and muttering to his subordinates, “They have broken through and you can’t stop them.”  As Rommel’s Panzer spearheads approached Tébessa, the principal US supply base in Africa, Fredendall began preparing for a bug-out.  He was clearly on the verge of abandoning his headquarters; indeed, he had already ordered the demolitions prepared.  Only a timely defensive stand–as in “just in time”–by the men and the field grades under his command saved him from that ignominy.  After the battle, Ike would kick him upstairs and back to the states for a training command.  His replacements, General George S. Patton and then General Omar S. Bradley, would show that there wasn’t all that much wrong with II Corps that solid leadership could not fix.

Sure, this or that point of the “Fredendall indictment” might need qualification.  Chain smoking?  Didn’t just about everyone in the army chain smoke in this era?  Despairing words?  Doesn’t every general utter a few from time to time?  But in the end, even I have to admit that it’s tough to find much good to say about a general described by one of his own armor commanders, General Ernest Harmon, as a “physical and moral coward.”

I offer a challenge.  I don’t care if you actually believe it, or just do it as an intellectual exercise:  give me your best defense of Fredendall.  Am I being overly harsh here?

For more military history blogs, visit our partner site,

19 Responses to Fredendall’s Art of War

  1. Oak Table says:

    Against Rommel, Arnim, and 4 tank divisions… who can blame Fredendall for losing hope? It sounds to me like a classic case of a commander ordered to hold a line he knows is untenable, and then getting blamed for his failure to hold the line, even though the enemy attack is ultimately stopped. I mean, if Fredendall gets the blame for what went wrong, doesn’t he also deserve some credit for what went right? Yes, he was ready to “bug out”, but he didn’t.

  2. Andrew Morris says:

    Fredendall was a victim of circumstance, like every other general throughout the war.

    He was leading an extremely green, inexperienced American army who were quite naive, against a highly experienced German army who were led by a general with significant battle experience.

    To compare the exploits of II Corps under different generals ignores the fact that II Corps were now battle-tested and had a better idea of what they were up against. Patton and Bradley exploited this which further draws negative comparisons with Fredendall.

    It is extremely rare that army units and leaders can immediately garner success without being experienced or tested in the rigors of war. Fredendall isn’t the first, and won’t be the last General who finds the reality of war far different to the academic chalkboards and diagrams he trained with.

    Thus, just as Lt. Col. Andrews is unfairly scapegoated for his decision at Maleme, it would be just as unfair to criticize Fredendall for his actions at the Kasserine Pass.

    Yes, you are being a bit harsh here.

  3. Rob Citino says:

    OT and Andrew–Points well taken. But let me ask: how come Fredendall’s reputation stood so low among his fellow officers? Is it always good enough to say: well, the defeated general was merely a victim of circumstances?

  4. Plaster Albatross says:

    This might have something to do with the American Way of War, which is often a bit of an egotistical blusterfest. Quite simply, it was easy for a bunch of armchair generals to criticize Fredendall, and to claim that they could have done better, when the reality is that they were all inexperienced. In all honesty, Fredendall could have criticized them just as easily.

    Admittedly, its just as fallacious to claim that every defeated general is a victim of circumstance, just as it is to say that every victorious general was a brilliant genius. However, the fact of the matter is that the events around Kasserine lasted approximately one week, and they were ultimately to result in an Allied victory. That evidence alone is insufficient to condemn Fredendall to an eternity of scorn.

    The fact of the matter is that Eisenhower visited the front line position at Sidi bou Zid the very night before the German attack, and yet Eisenhower was not the least bit concerned. Why then do we portray Fredendall as an idiot, but yet Eisenhower is a heroic leader? That’s just inconsistent.

  5. Bill Nance says:

    I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with most of the above posters. A general that commits massive engineer resources to building a corps HQ so far behind the line that two major retreats still leave it behind the forward edge of battle is one that is not worth having. Think about what that amount of engineer effort on the line would have meant.

    To be fair, Rommel with 4 panzer divisions against green troops is a hard fight. However, looking at the terrain that II Corps had to defend, it should have been able to do it, or at least give a better accounting for its actions.

    Fredendall really can’t take credit for the stand, because it wasn’t a corps fight by that point. It was determined regiments and battalions backed by their divisional artillery that won the day. The chance for the corps commander to fight a corps battle would have been at the onset of the attack on 14 Feb, or again at the defense of Kasserine. Instead, he abdicated his role to influence events, and was saved by his subordinates. If Fredendall wanted to do anything at that point, he should have moved to the front and attempted to fight his corps. Instead he stayed in his bunker and made plans to evacuate.

    As for comparing him to other commanders, I agree, Ike was worthless in this campaign, and even more so later on. His only positive attribute was that by him remaining as Supreme commander, it kept the Brits from putting Monty in charge. As for the excuse that he was placed in a bad situation – what about MG Allen and all those regimental and battalion commanders that finally decided enough was enough, and held? They were in a worse situation, yet they recovered. Fredendall may have been a great guy for all I know, yet he failed absolutely in his test of combat. Failure is occasionally excusable, but his inability to assume command and his selfish actions prior to the fight are not.

    • Van Gott says:

      Absolutely agree with Bill. Adittedly everyone on theAmerican side was green and essentially untested. However for a corps commander who was more concerned about his headquarters safety long distances from the front than to understand the terrain that his parcelled out troups occupied and over which they were expected to perform offensive and later defensive efforts defies imagination. Which incidentally,he seemed to have been short of as well.
      Unfortunately Eisenhower was not about to incur any problems with Marshall and instead of retiring him , sent him to a training command in the States.

  6. Rubber Bottle says:

    But if the engineers had constructed bunkers at sidi bou zid, would that have really made any kind of significant difference? Is that what Fredendall should have done differently? Should he have focused on building a Maginot Line along the eastern Dorsal? Did he really have such overwhelming engineering capability? Maybe he only had enough for one really good bunker, but it would have been wasted at Gafsa I’m sure. And just who exactly wanted to lug all that concrete forward all those miles? Was transportation even available?

    Meanwhile, since that idea was so obvious, I’m surprised nobody suggested this to Fredendall. I guess he just figured that he needed a corps headquarters that was protected from German bombs. I suspect Patton would have agreed with that notion after his own headquarters was bombed.

    Ultimately, I think we can all agree that we aren’t seeing many hard facts here. Nobody knows how many man hours were spent on Fredendall’s bunker, people are just making random guesses. Nobody knows how many tons of concrete, or steel were used. Nobody knows whether the engineers were experienced, or just learning to build their first bunker. Nobody knows exactly why Fredendall built this mythological bunker. Was he really a coward? Was he maybe expecting it to serve as an army command post? Was he thinking that maybe it would eventually allow Eisenhower to command from a forward position?

    I don’t know. You don’t know. Sadly, this is what most of military history devolves into, a bunch of people making up reasons to either hate or love various commanders, and insisting that things would have been dramatically different… if only. Such considerations are admittedly interesting, but real history would involve an actual detailed study of the bunker and its engineering schematics, rather than a blithe criticism of the very notion of a bunker.

    Its well and good to observe the obvious fact that something went wrong at Kasserine. It makes sense to suggest that perhaps Fredendall could have done things differently. But when you cross the line into outright denigration, that is rather shameful. You weren’t there, and there is no reason whatsoever to believe that you or anyone else would have done any better.

    Personally, I believe that everyone in the Allied camp knew that Rommel would eventually attack, and that he would eventually break through the eastern Dorsal, and they knew that if Rommel were stopped, it would not be by generalship, but rather by the leadership of the field officers. Nobody there was under any delusions about what the German tanks were capable of, and it makes no sense to pretend that Fredendall could have somehow stopped Rommel at any point much further east of where Rommel was actually stopped.

  7. Bill Nance says:

    don’t have the time to answer to all but here’s one data point –
    II Corps HQ took 200 engineers (so one reinforced company or two companies) 3 weeks to excavate – Andrews, Peter, A Place to be Lousy In, American Heritage Magazine (December 1991), Volume 42, Issue 8, pp. 100-109

    200 engineers given three weeks of time can do a tremendous amount. Not a maginot line, but anti-tank ditches, minefields, wire entanglements, infantry fighting bunkers, fighting vehicle positions. Any regimental commander on the front would have killed to have this kind of asset for three weeks. Who knows if they would have made a difference, but I can tell you this – there’s a huge difference between digging your HQ in (recommended) and putting yourself in a castle (what Fredendall did).

  8. Patrick Hays says:

    Okay, Fredenhall did not need that bunker. If I remember correctly US Army doctrine at the time was to attack! A bunker of that type is only needed when building maginot type defensive line That was not happening in Tunisa in 1943. Bill was right on about a better use for the engineers.
    Fredenhall was summed up the transtion from a peacetime army to a war fighting army. As well trained as the army was in North Africa it was not ready for war. It had to learn on the go and officers like Fredenhall who did not cut the mustard were discarded. To quote George C Scott’s Patton when he took II Corps, “they don’t look like soliders, they don’t act like soliders, so why in the hell would anyone expect them to fight like soliders!” Unitl the end of the war every unit that shipped out to Europe was put through an even more intensive training program once they arrived. In the end the US Army had some of the best, brightist officers and men on the planet!

  9. Patrick Hays says:

    Fredenhall reputation was so low after Kasserine because he was one of the best and brightist in the prewar army. His seemly cowardly behavior, HQ bunker 70 some odd miles behind the lines, lack of leadership during the battle was unpardonable amongst his peers

  10. Cap'n Dave says:

    In my opinion, Fredendall’s behavior is consistent for a military commander with a WWI concept of leadership from the rear. The commonly cited facts about Fredendall – he stayed on his troop ship during the landing until fighting was over, he lived in The Oran Hotel during the offensive to the east, he built the much discussed bunker – all point to a man who was a manager rather than a commander. His actions are consistent with a resource manager who is more comfortable with logistics and eschews combat – preferring to allow his subordinate commanders handle the fight. Unfortunately for him, the fight around the Kassarine pass required tactical coordination and planning above the division level. While the armies of the world had learned hard lessons about trench warfare from WWI, I believe Fredendall looked to WWI for an example of how a Corps commander behaved in combat. This makes sense in a way, since there is no field manual on how a commander at that level behaves and Fredendall would have had to look to his own combat experiences in the Philippines and WWI for examples. It is easy to imagine Doug Haig behaving in a similar fashion at Kassarine.

    That said, since no other US commander had any greater combat experience, let alone a combat command, there was no way to anticipate Fredendall’s weak showing. Had his subordinate commanders held the eastern dorsal, or had any other of a number of variables gone his way, his weaknesses may have gone overlooked and we could now look fondly on President Fredendall while analyzing the failings of General Eisenhower who was too distracted by personal and foreign affairs to give a good account of himself as a commander in North Africa. Both Fredendall and Ike are the result of the fortunes of war.

    As Pappy Boyington said “Show me a hero, and I’ll prove he’s a bum.”

  11. Lee says:

    “even I have to admit that it’s tough to find much good to say about a general described by one of his own armor commanders, General Ernest Harmon, as a “physical and moral coward.” — wow
    “…like to quote Clausewitz on chance and uncertainty and the “fog of war” and then turn around and claim that what General X should have done in a given historical situation was “perfectly obvious.” It just doesn’t compute to hold both of these points of view simultaneously.” –I respectfully disagree. It is possible, and even logical, to hold both views. Clausewitz offers a macroscopic assessment of the situation, some direction into the larger whys, as well as understanding some knee jerk reactions. Yet there should be some assessment of General X’s specific actions, otherwise all the suffering and loss was for nothing.
    That Fredendall did not react to the situation the same way, or as effectively as Patton may have done does not equate to cowardice. The question about being held in low esteem by his fellow officers–before Kasserine it seems there existed much goodwill for Fredendall. No one enjoys getting hit with the shrapnel of blame or responsibility for bad situations, particularly those that were not of their own making–sadly, it is easier to let General X take most, or all the blame- the fellow officers get the credit, history gets its villain- and everyone else gets to feel better about themselves. Those are the cowards, the ones that were not in General X’s shoes, but stood by heaping on the blame lest someone pointed a finger at their actions. I believe every military leader would tweak or react differently in a majority of situations if they had the clarity of hindsight. Imo, One needs to know as many of the facts as possible, assess the options, and even then, remember we are all just human, no one should be expected to be perfect in every instance, God knows I have made my share of mistakes, but you learn and forgive yourself. I caveat with a personal life truth; people usually do what they honestly believe to be the wisest actions in a given circumstance. As Cap Dave points out Fredendall’s command style was not the best fit for that instance, but he did what he knew to do, he commanded from his experience.
    FWIW, Assigning blame and labeling another a coward or weak is usually done when one is uniformed or reacting from fear- turns out fear real is the mind killer. Blame is an easy thing to assign, but like situations I have encountered thus far, it is unproductive, serves to cause further injury, and only builds walls, not bridges, life is far too short for such banal behavior. Sometimes it is easier to blame others when one has not walked in another’s shoes, but usually a second, and sometimes a third look, will reveal that the person reacted the best he knew how- life can really suck sometimes, war being an intense, severe example, but it sure beats the alternative. If you honestly believe General X acted out of good faith, no matter the outcome, maybe it offers an opportunity to learn so we do not lose good soldiers unnecessarily, as well as offers the opportunity to lend some understanding and compassion?

  12. Herkimer says:

    Thanks for posting this; just found your blog searching around. Keep up the good work!

  13. Adam Rinkleff says:

    I think its unfair to criticze a general for a near disaster which ultimately turned out to be a success, and which was basically unavaoidable anyways.

    According to Nance, Fredendall had a couple hundred engineers spend a couple weeks turning a mining shaft into a bunker. Was this such an unreasonable decision? Weren’t the Allies suffering from incessant air attack? Wasn’t it true that II Corps lacked sufficient housing, and that headquarters staff were killed by German air attacks? Isn’t it true that Fredendall also used engineers, many more engineers, to construct a minefield across Kasserine Pass? Why then do we turn this mythological bunker into such a decisive damning piece of evidence. Clearly, the bunker represented a mere fraction of Fredendall’s efforts, and it certainly had some justification.

    I don’t think anyone is going to realistically argue that it was possible for the 2nd Corps to hold the eastern Dorsal against a determined German attack. Instead of building a headquarters bunker, Fredendall could have instead constructed a couple of pillboxes in Sidi bou zid, and we all know it wouldn’t have made one iota of difference. Yes, he could have done better, but everyone can do better. Meanwhile, the fact remains that the Germans were stopped.

    Thus, I think that criticisms of Fredendall tell us more about American culture as naively perfectionist, than they actually tell us about Fredendall’s performance. We hate Fredendall like we hate professional sports players who fumble a ball or miss a free throw. Nevermind that they are actually quite good, or that something might very well have been unavoidable, because people don’t really care about the facts, they just care about the dramatic story in which Fredendall -must- be derided so that we can feel good about the subsequent progress.

    Ultimately, it is foolish to think that one battle can be used to indicate whether a general was competent or incompetent. The variables are far too complex for such simplistic analysis. Indeed, I seem to remember that the Germans were very happy with their bunkers in Italy, which served to protect their headquarters from endless Allied air attacks. How is it that the Germans become geniuses for building bunkers, but yet Fredendall remains a moron? How is it that the French were idiots to build their Maginot Line, but yet the Germans were brilliant in constructing their Seigfreid Line. It seems that most people are far too quick to confuse success with competence, and failure with incompetence.

    Meanwhile, to reiterate, the fact remains that the Germans were stopped at Kasserine! It was clearly a defeat for the Germans! Just what exactly are we blaming Fredendall for? Because he lost control of an outpost position at Sidi bou zid? Who is crazy enough to think that there was any way to adequately defend the southeastern Dorsals? In response to the German attack, Fredendall did just exactly what all of you wanted him to do. He ordered an immediate counterattack by Alger… and it failed miserably. It seems that Fredendall is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. One might say that he has become a bit of a scapegoat.

  14. Dwight Schrute says:

    I accept your challenge Dr. Citino and I’ll prove to you Fredendall wasn’t wrong for sitting in his bunker. While leading from the front like Patton does sound popular isn’t a corps commander supposed to be at his HQ? True his HQ was at the far rear of his corps but with the constant swings in momentum in North Africa isn’t that where he should be. Wasn’t the original commander of British forces in North Africa captured after one such offensive lead by Rommel? Also, being at the front disrupts the flow of communication to and from the corps commander. Everybody knew where Fredendall was but if he was directing the battle from the front line it is more than likely that he couldn’t be reached easily. This is the U.S. Army in World War II not the U.S. Army in Iraq. I am sure the captains may back me up when I say that if a commander is not where his is supposed to be, his HQ, then it is a pain in the butt to go around trying to contact him and find him with even our modern technology. Being at the battlefront is not the best place for receiving reports and issuing orders. Although, Fredendall would have had a greater sense of how dire his situation was much earlier than he originally did.

    Could we blame Fredendall for the poor performance of his troops in the field. Who really knows that answer because his troops were untested in combat and the United States army had no previous high intensity engagements with the Germans. Well World War I but that was 1918 and we are in 1943. Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass were the bar after the first encounters with the Germans. Eventually the bar for combat performance against the Germans gets raised by future victories but how can anybody expect American commanders to do better with such raw troops and more importantly untested field commanders. Fredendall deployed his troops in excellent positions and his offensives earlier in the campaign look very similar to Patton’s later on. Is their anyway that Fredendall could have stopped his troops from routing once they were under aerial bombardment or under attack by panzers. I doubt it unless he decided to deploy his artillery closer to the lines but that would have taken the artillery out of a more effective defensive position where they were later used to stop Rommel from exploiting his victory at Kasserine. Also, why does Fredendall get the blame for losing at Kasserine when in truth he won when it comes to the overall operation? He won with a less experienced army and inferior equipment with the proper use and deployment of his artillery.

    Fredendall lost his job because of style points. He wasn’t at the front but in his HQ which in public opinion doesn’t look good. Second, even though Kasserine was a US victory it wasn’t a pretty victory. Terry Allen may have very well kept his job by leading the defense of the 1st ID at the front. Finally, two people were going to lose their jobs after Kasserine and the logical choice in 1943 was Eisenhower. So Eisenhower fires Fredendall and places the blame on his shoulders for Kasserine and he puts Patton in his place to whip the II Corps into shape.

  15. Karl says:

    Just some of the facts from the wikipedia article on him are pretty damning:

    – Dropped out of West Point a second time after having failed at math his 1st quarter the first time around. (Would like to know if it was math or something else that leads to his leaving the second time)

    – Described as “swaggering”

    – “Fredendall was once described by American General Lucian K. Truscott as,

    Small in stature, loud and rough in speech, he was outspoken in his opinions and critical of superiors and subordinates alike. He was inclined to jump to conclusions which were not always well founded. Fredendall rarely left his command post for personal visits and reconnaissance, yet he was impatient with the recommendations of subordinates more familiar with the terrain and other conditions than he.”

    – “Fredendall stayed on his command ship, HMS Largs until after fighting was over (during the Torch landings)

    – ” Orders from his headquarters in the Grand Hotel of Oran were headed with “II Corps – In the Field” which prompted laughter from his troops living in tents and slit trenches.”

    And I think perhaps most damning:

    – “Fredendall was given to speaking and issuing orders using his own slang, such as calling infantry units “walking boys” or artillery “popguns.” Instead of using the standard military map grid-based location designators, he would make up confusing codes such as “the place that begins with C.” This practice was unheard-of for a general and distinguished graduate of the Command and General Staff School, who had been taught to always use standardized order procedures to ensure clarity when transmitting orders to subordinate commanders under the stress of combat. Fredendall’s informality often led to confusion amongst his subordinates, and precious time was lost attempting to figure out his meaning.”

  16. russ says:

    “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the ONLY thing.” Those who defend Friedenhall need to look at the W/L column.

  17. Skip Tollifson says:

    Question. Did Patton blame Fredendall for the capture of his son-in-law Lt. Col. Waters?

  18. Chris Rein says:

    OK, six years late, but I’ll bite. Fredendall was far from the best corps commander of WWII, but he suffered from several extenuating circumstances, including faulty army (Anderson) and theater (yes, even Ike made mistakes!) commanders that limited his effectiveness at Kasserine. Anderson scattered Fredendall’s corps so badly that, at the outset of the battle, he commanded only one battalion of infantry (3/168, 34 ID) and one combat command (CCA) of 1 AD. Anderson had detached the rest of 34 ID, 1 AD and all of 1 ID to bolster the collapsing French sector and released them piecemeal as the crisis developed, meaning Anderson was as guilty of micromanaging his subordinates units as Fredendall was of micromanaging Ward’s 1st Armored. And Ike, despite pronouncing Fredendall’s dispositions as “as good as could be made” on 15 Feb to Marshall (Chandler, 955) backpedaled after the collapse, claiming six days later that “dispositions were not completely in accord with my general instructions.” (Chandler, 970). In addition, Ike sent Ernest Harmon, relegated to a non-combat role in 2nd Armored in Morocco, forward to Fredendall as an intended replacement for Ward (Chandler, 969), only to again backpedal two days later, falsely claiming that “In sending Harmon to you I have done so merely to give you a senior assistant…I have no thought of your replacing Ward” (Chandler, 982). Most of the evidence cited for Fredendall’s collapse comes from Harmon and Truscott who both had quite a bit to gain professionally with Fredendall’s relief. (In fact, Harmon was offered Fredendall’s command of II Corps but, at least, had the decency to realize that it would be unethical to take the job of a man that he had just recommended be replaced. But any churn in the higher command would eventually trickle down and Ernie did eventually get not only Ward’s First Armored but also his own corps.) And all of the principal detractors were West-Pointers while Fredendall, who failed out after a semester, remained above most of them!

    Fredendall had to defend over ninety miles of frontage with less that a full division, much less a corps, under an army commander who was wrongly convinced that the main thrust would come further north in the British sector (despite the fact that “Monk” Dickson, Fredendall’s G-2, had correctly divined German intentions and knew they would face the brunt, and told Anderson so when he visited II Corps headquarters on the even of the battle) and wrongly, or selfishly, withheld reinforcements causing Fredendall to commit them piecemeal. All under a theater commander with NO combat experience who changed his story weekly, if not daily, but managed to survive the debacle unscathed. When Patton and Bradley successfully commanded II Corps in the months that followed (the evidence most commonly cited for Fredendall’s inadequate leadership) they had a full corps of three infantry (1, 9, 34 ID) and one armored (1 AD) divisions concentrated on a narrow frontage attacking a much weakened enemy operating on a logistical shoestring. Fredendall defended a dispersed frontage with inadequate forces against a legendary enemy commander probably at his strongest point of the campaign, and with the freedom of action to counterattack at a time and place of his own choosing. Whatever his personal faults, Fredendall has gotten a raw deal and has taken more than his share of the blame by an organization quick to explain away numerous procurement, training and organizational faults as attributable to one man’s “poor leadership.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , , , ,

Sponsored Content: