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The American Eagle? Mark W. Clark

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: April 08, 2010 
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Last week I introduced the thorny case of one Mark W. Clark.  "General Clark" to his subordinates, and "the American Eagle" to an American public who idolized him in World War II. 

And since this is a blog and not an academic or scholarly publication, and we can say anything we feel like, let me introduce evidence that I have seen (and heard) with my own eyes (and ears).  My mother was one tough cookie, and she told me, from the days when I was but a lad, that Mark Clark was one of the great American heroes of the war.  She was a smart woman, she would never steer her son wrong, and I would never dismiss out of hand ANYTHING she said to me.

Then again, Mom never read a lot of operational history.

As I've grown into manhood (and beyond), I've read a lot of history of the war.  And I have come to know that not everyone loves Mark Clark.  There's a contrary case to be made.  A tough landing at Salerno in September 1943.  Even he had to call it a "near disaster."  Some jitters–and they can't be denied–in which he gave serious consideration to evacuating the bridgehead.  He had never commanded an army before, so perhaps it was understandable.  But his peers didn't think so, and they made it clear in a mountain of memoirs.  And his peers knew things that my Mom didn't, certainly.  Even I'm willing to admit that. 

And then–the unforgivable:  Exhibit A in the anti-Clark indictment.  Operation Diadem has just gone in (May 1944), and Clark's 5th Army has cracked the Gustav Line.  The US VI Corps has broken out of Anzio, and has what looks on the map like a clear shot into the rear of the German 10th Army, perhaps even "encircling" it.  Instead of driving for the destruction of the enemy army, however, Clark turns his entire force (including VI Corps) towards Rome.  An enemy capital, and one of the great cities of world history.  After his long slog up from Salerno, Clark sees Rome as the "prize" of the campaign.  And ever since, military historians have crucified him for that decision.

Maybe I live in an alternate universe–I admit it.  But from where I sit, a US general who refuses to take Rome, when it sits there offering itself, probably gets crucified by the press, and by later generations of military historians as well.  Let's also be honest:  how often did the western allies actually "encircle" a German army in this war?  Patton?  Bradley?  Ike?  No.  The Falaise pocket in 1944?  Never happened.  As heavily as it got hammered, the Wehrmacht always managed to slip away.  It got crushed, but never encircled.

Maybe Mom was smarter than we think. 

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31 Responses to “The American Eagle? Mark W. Clark”


  1. 1
    Luke Truxal says:

    Dr. Citino what was the condition of Clark's army after the breakout? Was his force capable of encircling the Germans? It seems that Clark made the safe play which makes sense if his army was in no condition to attempt a battle of encirclement. Look at what the Germans did in Operation Typhoon. They did encircle the Soviets but at what cost?

  2. 2
    Rob Citino says:

    Tough to say, Big Luke! He had a single corps, the VI. It had been penned up in Anzio for 5 months. How ready was it to pounce and Kessel an entire German army? Again: tough to say!

  3. 3
    Bill Nance says:

    Of course, just because no one accomplished an encirclement doesn't mean he shouldn't have tried. Again, if you produce results, being a glory hound is ok. However, when all you produce is a press conference without even trying to cut your enemy off, I don't care what your motives are, it looks bad, especially when that army you may or may not have let go digs in real deep forcing you fight through another fortified line.

    Past this point, I just see Clark as an Army commander that cannot make all of his pieces play in concert. Anzio, Cassino, Diadem, the pursuit past Rome. You have individual corps fighting it out without a very good overall plan. As much as I hate to say, just doing a quick read it looks like Diadem's initial successes were actually British. Moreover, that was an army group plan. The army commander (Clark) didn't seem to manuever his army as an army, but rather as disjointed pieces.

    Of course, all this said, Italy's going to be a tough nut to crack. The terrain favors the defender to the point where even if 10th Army had been destroyed, I am pretty sure that there still would have been a long bloody campaign North of Rome. Just that without the 10th Army, the Germans would have had to send more troops to Italy.

    Also, I'm curious what SHAEF and Alexander thought the end game in Italy was going to be. The government of Italy had already surrendered, so to kick the Germans out of Italy requires making Germany surrender, especially as the priority had shifted to France in 44. Even if they succeeded in going to the alps, what are they going to do? Pull a Hannibal? If they thought cracking the gothic line was tough, could anyone imagine a major assault against the Germans in the alps?? There's a reason no one messes with the Swiss.

  4. 4
    Cap'n Dave says:

    let's see:

    Capture Rome = huge public relations coup

    Encircle Wehmacht and destroy them = huge public relations coup

    the only difference seems to be the amount of risk involved. Rome seems to be the easy target, and without the benefit of hindsight, the Wehrmacht will still be there and can be encircled at a later point. I think that criticism of Clark over this decision is really more of a discussion of professional technique, similar to arguing over whether the '85 bears should have let "refrigerator" Perry run in for a touchdown during the Superbowl – the end result doesn't change, but do you award points for style or is it overkill?

    The big difference in Clark's two options is only apparent in hindsight, and I don't think Clark believed it was an "either / or" decision, but rather a "which comes first". Clearly his decision speaks to his priorities, which his peers apparently didn't like.

  5. 5
    Bill Nance says:

    Dave,
    Good points, but remember to add in the larger picture

    Capture or cripple 10th Army – easier assault north / fewer casualties

    Capture Rome – no operational benefit, then or after.

    Clark had been in theater long enough to know how fast the Germans moved. If he thought he could do Rome, THEN encircle 10th Army, he's not only a glory hound, but a fool.

    Clearly Italy by this point is all about tying down the wehrmacht. As I said earlier, there is no end game where 15th AG goes through the alps. So obviously the destruction of German forces is much more important than the capture of a city in this particular scenario. For an Army commander to not understand this concept, or to ignore it speaks poorly for his abilities as a commander and leader.

  6. 6
    Steven Ramold says:

    Clark forgot something that Ulysses Grant knew eighty years before–cities don't kill people, armies do. Any way you slice it, the failure to destroy a significant enemy formation, in retreat and in the open no less, in favor of taking a symbolic objective is a failure. The occupation of Rome did not shorten the war by a single second, but the destruction of the Tenth Army had the potential to affect the war in much more dramatic ways. Clearly, Clark's peers did not like his choices, keeping in mind his peers were Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton.

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    Steve–

    "In retreat"? Yes. "In the open"? Not sure!

    –RC

  8. 8
    Luke Truxal says:

    Was their a British attempt to link up with Clark in Alexander's plan?

  9. 9
    Bill Nance says:

    In DIADEM, the entire front attacked. The 8th Army was a large participant and actually helped unhinge the Gustav line.

  10. 10
    Rob Citino says:

    Gentlemen:

    For fun (and to see a British-centered account) check out the Wiki article on Operation Diadem:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Diadem

    –RC

  11. 11
    John McWharter says:

    I was in the ETO but Not Italy in 44 & 45.. My impression of Gen Clark was that he was a blunderer ( Bad press?) Compared to some of the other Generals, he was a dim star

  12. 12
    Luke Truxal says:

    Should Alexander have relieved Clark for disobeying his orders? Did Alexander have that kind of pull especially after Salerno and Anzio?

  13. 13
    Bill Nance says:

    The big issue I think Alexander faced is that he was a Brit, and Clark was an American. Thus, the whole issue of relieving a general officer would have been fraught with politics. Most Americans would probably have rallied to Clark in a case like that, with the attitude of "he might be a loser, but he's OUR loser".

    Probably, Ike or Marshall should have intervened, but by DIADEM, perhaps Clark is in a good spot to keep him out of trouble. Relieving him would have meant taking another 3 or 4 star from the main event in Europe to command a strategic sideshow. Perhaps, they figured he couldn't do a lot of harm in Italy, and it was a moot point how far 15th AG would go in Italy anyways.

    John, I salute you for your service. Don't see too many veterans posting on this board, and it's great to see another one.

  14. 14
    Patrick Hays says:

    Clark should be hounded for his decesion to send VI corps to Rome and the rear of German 10th army. Rome was going to be there and 10th army were doing there best not to be. The appearence of a corps sized force in their rear would have greatly unhinged the German withdrawal. This could have resulted in a greater loss of men and material and forced the Germans to withdrawal farther north than they did before they were able to reform and dig in. Rome would have been there for the taking and Clark would have still had his victory parade in Rome!
    My Mom thinks Clark should have been court-martialed!!

  15. 15
    Sensemaker says:

    "Let's also be honest: how often did the western allies actually "encircle" a German army in this war? Patton? Bradley? Ike? No. The Falaise pocket in 1944? Never happened. As heavily as it got hammered, the Wehrmacht always managed to slip away. It got crushed, but never encircled."

    If this really is true, (and I personally believe you are stretching the facts here) what does it say about the competence of Allied generals? Russians often encircled German units -in great numbers too. Still it is the Russians that are accused of using human wave tactics instead of manoeuvre warfare and only succeeding through numerical superiority.

    Sensmaker

  16. 16
    Luke Truxal says:

    Italy and Normandy are not the best ground for encircling an army compared to the Russian plains. Also, the U.S. and Britain had one distinct disadvantage that the Russians didn't have in operations which was allies. Coordinating between troops of several different nations is not easily done. Nations are now competing against each other in the strategic planning and operational fighting in order to gain glory and or avoid casualties. As Dave has put it does inflicting casualties while attempting an unsuccessful encirclement of the Wehrmacht gain as much press or attention as does capturing Rome? While I don't think the Russians were as crude in their operations as portrayed, it is my opinion that the Russians have the advantage of operating in terrain more suited for mobile warfare and fighting deep inside Russia has to be an advantage for the Soviets.

  17. 17
    Mike Stout says:

    The Soviets managed to trap the Germans a few times, but the Soviets were using an expanded version of Germany's own tactics (Bewegungskrieg) and utilizing massive armies to do it. The Germans used hammer blows to quickly surround and destroy the enemy's military; I guess you could call the Red Army's tactics as using sledgehammers. However, the Germans had to know the way to rapidly escape something resembling their own tactics, and they often did.

    Competency I don't think had much to do with the results on the Western Allied side. The Germans were on the defensive almost the entire time on the Western Front, and were able to successfully guard their escape routes. The Western Allies were hampered by more than their command structure – they consistently were undermanned and relied more on artillery and air power than using their ground forces. The offensive philosophy of both the British and the Americans was completely different from the Germans.

    Of course, we have to bring in Patton to counter that last point. He was considered by the Germans to be the best Allied commander partially because he's the main one who fought like they did. However, despite the rapidity of the drive across France and his relief of Bastogne he never seemed to be able to deliver that death blow. He got his armies to move like the Germans, but wasn't able to score a victory like the Kiev pocket.

    Actually, Patton's campaign in Sicily was one of his best chances at encirclement. His drive around the island was certainly about outracing Monty to Messina as much as beating the Germans, but Messina was the German escape route to Italy. Had Patton gotten there sooner he could have trapped the full Italian and German army.

  18. 18
    Luke Truxal says:

    Clark needs to get credit for not losing his army in Italy. How many generals lost an army or suffered such significant losses that they no longer had an effective fighting force? Look at Clark's near disasters and that should prove that he is at least a competent leader.

  19. 19
    Bill Nance says:

    Sorry Luke, not losing is not a good appelation for an army commander. If Salerno or other operations were jacked up, he allowed them to be jacked up. Granted, he had some bad luck, and had a tough opponent, but let's not take the friction argument too far. There were some bad planning moves in all his operations, and that's what Army commanders get paid to supervise. This same argument could then be used to exonerate Fredendall too, but I'm not buying it. A guy that can scramble out of his own mess, or worse, someone who has to be bailed out by some heroics of his subordinates, ain't that competent.

    A great commander of mine once stated that "Medals of Honor are won because the awardee's commanders failed to properly place and support that individual on the battlefield." Basically, if commanders are doing their jobs right, you shouldn't need that many awards for heroism, because there will be less cause for it.

  20. 20
    Roger Soiset says:

    This is all a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking. If Clark had done something other than what was done, the Germans would have responded with–what? We don't know what would have happened. The Italian campaign was very political and bloody, but in the big picture was a sideshow. It did keep a lot of German troops tied down that otherwise would have been in France, or Belgium. Clark is blamed for a difficult conquest of Italy, that was probably too cautious but ultimately was a success. He later did much the same thing in Korea after MacArthur was relieved. I briefly knew the man in Charleston where he was the president of The Citadel, where his personal heroism in a reconnaissance mission in Vichy North Africa is memorialized. He was a proud man, but I never had the impression of arrogance.

  21. 21
    Luke Truxal says:

    I think this goes again back to Dave's argument about Clark and that is what did Clark's peers think of Clark. That seemed to be the key in the firing of Fredendall was some of the criticism that he was receiving from his subordinates. I think it was General Keyes but I'm not sure. I'm not a big fan of Clark but it seems to me that Clark was no more imaginative than say Bradley was in Normandy. I think the big difference is that once Bradley achieved a breakthrough he had a lot more room to maneuver. I'm not saying Clark was good but rather that he was average. I still think for the U.S. army commanders in World War II not losing your army which is highly inexperienced and unprepared for war should count for something. Why did we invade French North Africa? To avoid losing our first campaign. I do believe that as your army gains experience and better commanders come to the surface then the U.S. could have found a reason to remove Clark and put in a more competent army commander. Who can Eisenhower replace Clark with? Bradley? He's preparing for Overlord. Patton? He's still in the dog house. There really isn't anybody else. However, it may be a reflection on his capabilities that they left him in command in Italy. He couldn't do any damage in Italy and he had certainly proven that he could at least avoid losing his army in Italy. I think leaving Clark in command in Italy is a reflection on what his peers thought of him. Good enough for Italy. Sorry Dr. Citino.

  22. 22
    Keith Levanway says:

    Perhaps Clark would not have succeded in encircling the 10th Army, but it would have cost the Germans terribly. Falaise was not a completely successful encirclement. However the Germans paid a horrible price to get some of their troops out. Even if he did not cut off the Germans completely they would lose more militarily than when Rome fell.

    Rome was there and it wasn't going anywhere. If Clark succeeded cutting off the 10th Army Rome would be captured. If he failed it would be captured sooner or later. In all likelihood the Germans would not have defended Rome strongly because they would have been licking their wounds and looking for a better defensive position.

  23. 23
    Cosmo Kramer says:

    after all is said and done, the fact remains tha "Wayne" was just another American "Prima Donna" general whose only interest was in furthering his own personal aggrandizement. As far as his military skills are concerned, I believe they were non-existant.

  24. 24
    Cosmo Kramer says:

    my post is missing a "T". should read: the fact remains THAT. etc. sorry.

  25. 25
    Emil Browder says:

    What do you mean that Allies didn't encircle the Germans in the Falaise Pocket? It's true that many got away, but tens of of thousands of Wehrmacht troops surrendered, I believe it was about 80 thousand. Adding to that, Patton and Bradley were responsible for that.
    So I have to disagree with your last point. Mark Clark was just another glory hound, any good general would have encircled the 10th when ordered to do so.

  26. 26
    Pamela Tarleton Westafer says:

    My father served under Mark Clark in Italy and was awarded the bronze star by him . He continued to visit my father on his way to visit relatives in NC until his death. He called my father one of his "boys". He followed my dad's career as one of the youngest police chiefs in NC to one of the longest serving. Mark Clark was considered a true American Eagle in our family.

  27. 27
    Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Pamela! And here's to your father.

  28. 28
    Juan I. says:

    Gen. Clark was a petulant and ambitious officer, the fact that Rome was open was as luring for him as a tied goat for a tiger. He was thinking with P.R. up-front and he was going to be the first Allied General to conquer an Axis capital city. Surely his pursuit of the 10th German Army would've meant a severe blow to Hitler's plans, as he was unable to reinforce seriously the Italian front and the conquest of Italy would've been less costly and no doubt the outcome of the War would've been quicker and maybe different. He took Rome for mere personal vanity, and it cost several thousand more Allied casualties in the long run.

  29. 29
    simon humby says:

    Clark was something worse than incompetent – he valued his own PR above the lives of his troops. I've just read a book by Alan Wicker (who was there) that says Clark was "Hitler's favourite US general"

  30. 30
    Parker West says:

    It's appropriate that those with some kind of a personal tie to Clark would be supportive of the man while those without that connection after having reviewed his performance would regard the man as an incompetent stumblebum who's outstanding characteristic was vanity. He may have been an American Eagle but he was an American Eagle sitting either in a villa in Naples or a palace further north in Italy. Lee avoided Richmond to inflict huge casualties on the Confederate army but a Mark Clark was not going to miss out on the chance to trade trapping a beaten, bloody and exhausted German army for the Glory of Rome. While the man sent the Texas National Guard on an impossible diversionary mission to cross the icy inflated Rapido river at the same time as he and buddy John Lucas we're building their "beached whale" on Anzio beaches. He destroyed the 44th and 46th corps on the rocky outcroppings below Cassino, it seemed as if the man was so detached from "on the ground" realism that it was easier to get 1000's of men killed that to leave the palace doors to actually see what he was ordering men to do and the conditions they had to deal with. Clark was the American "Call Me Market Garden" Montgomery without any discernible leadership talent but the right connections.

  31. 31
    Dogface says:

    After reading through the various comments, been impressed by the thoughtful and interesting comments, pros and cons. Especially Bill Nance's remark about capable commanders needing to be bailed out less by MOH winners. Never thought of it that way, though I wouldn't mention that to the naval aviators of TBS 8 (Battle of Midway) or Adm "Jack" Fletcher. Injecting some hearsay here. I read that Audie Murphy refused to salute Mark Clark until Clark first saluted to acknowledge the MOH which Murphy was wearing. He later said: "It was the least that I could do after all he did to us in Italy". If true, this is a telling indictment from a common foot slogging dogface who had to carry out orders which he knew caused the lives of American boys. Thought I'd pass this story along for what it's worth.



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