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?
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