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Omar Bradley, the General's General

By Alan Axelrod 
Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: January 29, 2009 
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Eisenhower was also tired of all the attention, both good and bad, being lavished on Patton, and he was anxious for the American people to be introduced to a commander who fit more comfortably into the role of a leader of citizen soldiers in the army of a democratic republic.

Pyle took him up on his recommendation and soon located Bradley in Nicosia, Sicily. "Up to now," Bradley observed, Pyle "had written exclusively about GIs and he was not comfortable with the brass. He stuck with me like a shadow for three days." The journalist wrote a six-part series that, Bradley modestly observed, "hardly made me a household name."

But that is precisely what it did. Or, rather, it made for him a household name: the GI General. Bradley's hour, it seemed, had arrived. In Bradley, Pyle saw a general who looked and acted like a dogface private. He saw him as the anti-Patton and spun him into journalistic gold: a "regular guy" hero who just happened to be a general. Pyle's "GI General" epithet gave home front America a hook on which to hang a simple and appealing identity for Bradley, and he quickly entered into a public prominence that his burgeoning responsibilities—from II Corps commander in North Africa to 12th Army Group commander in Europe, the leader of 1.3 million men—surely merited. Bradley became what today would be called a brand. Who is Omar Nelson Bradley? Why, he's the GI General! There was no need for excuses—Patton's a loose cannon but he gets the job done—and even less need for complexities. In the popular imagination, the Bradley brand easily survived his nearly career-wrecking tactical lapse at the Battle of the Bulge (his slowness to recognize the development of a major German offensive through the Ardennes) and a potentially damning role in supporting, perhaps even instigating, Eisenhower's controversial strategic decision to concede Berlin to the Red Army.

The Bradley brand made him a popular hero, and he would retain significant prestige through his postwar military and civilian careers. Then came 1970 and, with it, George C. Scott's resurrection of George S. Patton as a full-blown cultural icon in Franklin Schaffner's great film. Bradley earned a small fortune from Patton by allowing his memoir, A Soldier's Story, to be used as a source for the script and by contributing his services as technical adviser, but from the day of the premiere, his own historical significance has seemed increasingly vague. Patton, long dead, had come blazing back to life as a legend; whereas Bradley, though very much alive, remained where he had been for a long time: outside of the public eye and only peripherally in the popular consciousness.

Even worse for the Bradley legacy, professional military historians were growing more critical of his generalship. During his days as an Infantry School and West Point pedagogue, Bradley introduced the use of elaborate sand tables—three-dimensional representations of terrain—to analyze actual battles as well as to prepare for war games. In this way, he pioneered what today would be called a comprehensive understanding of the "battle space." Yet it was his failure to take into account the Norman terrain—the bocage, the infamous hedgerow country—that imperiled and greatly retarded the breakout from the lodgment areas in the costly weeks following D-Day.

Moreover, his methodical approach to operations could be overly cautious, allowing tactical and even strategic opportunities to slip away. To be sure, he was usually a bolder gambler than Bernard Montgomery, but far more conservative than—who else?—Patton. And then, of course, there was the crowning blunder of his career: his willingness to leave the Ardennes thinly defended in December 1944, a decision by which he seemed very nearly to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Understandably, it is all enough to prompt our asking just what Bradley should be remembered for—aside, that is, from having been the GI General. But the fact is that he was a savvy combat tactician whose successes should have overshadowed his failures, rather than vice versa. And perhaps his crowning achievement was, in the context of one of his strategic breakthroughs, channeling Patton's headstrong enthusiasm into a smashing victory for the Allies.

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12 Responses to “Omar Bradley, the General's General”

  1. 1
    William Weidner says:

    General Bradley ordered Patton's XVCorps to sit behind the southern inter-Army Group Boundary at Argentan-St. Leonard-Gace for nearly a week from 12 August to 17 August 1944, leaving critical terrain features in possession of the Germans: like the ridge line at St. Leonard, the high ground northeast of Arhentan and the critical road net at Argentan. This cost a lot of American boys their lives. The GI's general my foot……..

  2. 2
    B. Horne says:

    good point–you seem to know your stuff.
    But I'm curious what you and others thought about the real theme of this story–that Bradley's real genius was in knowing how and when to use Patton, in masterminding Operation Cobra, then throwing
    Patton in to spearhead it?

    Bill Horne, Editor
    World War II Magazine

  3. 3
    J Kenneday says:

    A good article on a good General.

    While we needed our Patton's, Montgomery's & MacArthur's it was important that we also needed the good solid Generals to keep them in rein. I believe this was Eisenhower's, & IMHO Bradley's place.

  4. 4
    J Wire says:

    Omar Bradley is the General that the Army since WWll has tried to use as a poster child more than any other general. He cared about his troops like a father yet always the objective was the mission to be accomplished. His men loved him because they knew he did care about them and knew the best way to end the war was through defeating the enemy. Patton never let up on the enemy and yet he never let any supplies catch up to him either. I knew a man who was in Patton's unit during the war who said for 6months for breakfast, lunch and supper he ate red beets and peas. This is no lie. He hated beets and peas for the rest of his life. All the people who wern't there looked at Patton's sucesses and glorifiy him. He was a pusher who only cared of defeating the Enemy with the most glory for himself possible. Bradly was the man to get your son home and defeat the enemy.

  5. 5
    W John says:

    J W- "Bradly was the man to get your son home and defeat the enemy."

    Do you know how many US soldier dead in Hurtgen Forest under the command of Bradly, do you know Patton's third army had the lowest causality/kill ratio?

  6. 6
    Charles Darnay says:

    General Bradley was a great military teacher- wow look at the impressive students: Creighton W. Abrams Jr., Bruce Palmer Jr., Andrew J. Goodpaster Jr., John L. Throckmorton, and William Westmoreland. WIthout Bradley's leadership and teachings in the middle to late 1930's our officer ranks would have been terrible. Thank God General Bradley was available.

  7. 7
    Larry Burgess says:

    I have always been a fan of both General Patton and General Bradley. They were very different men when it came to fighting a war but they both got the job done. The line in the movie "Patton" sort of tells the story and points out the difference between the two men.

    Bradley said to Patton some thing along the line of: "George, I fight this war because its my job but you fight this war because you love it…"

  8. 8
    Paul Chacon says:

    My godfather was General Bradley's bodyguard during WWII and has a memory that is nothing short of astonishing! His name is Louis Villegos and is living in Colorado Springs CO. He remebers names dates and villages during their movemnts throughout Europe during the war.

  9. 9
    rsperez says:

    Games & wars are won by 'gamebreakers'. If McClellan had remained a the head of the Army of the Potomac, we'd have a divided country today.
    The Real Genius of the War Department & WW 2 was General George C. Marshall. He was the wizard behind the curtain that put it all together & provided advice & counsel to Eisenhower, the President & the general staff.
    Read his biography…you will be amazed. He was a great human being.
    Thanks…Bob P

  10. 10

    [...] a Louisiana state senator, demonstrated his winning style at giving campaign speeches in French. General Omar Bradley was teamed with an army private. Marx goaded the private into telling Bradley everything that was [...]

  11. 11
    AJ says:

    I named my Rhodesian Ridgeback after him :-).

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