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The American Rommel

By Caleb Carr
Summer 1992 • MHQ Magazine

Major General John Wood Showed Patton and the rest of the high command how to fight a true lightning war.

 

THE HISTORIC FRENCH TOWN OF TROYES CONTROLLED an important stretch of the upper Seine River, so it was a likely spot for the armies of Nazi Germany and the Allies to clash during their struggle for control of Europe. Troyes had once been a celebrated meeting place for European nobility—King Henry V of England and Princess Catherine of France had been married there in 1420—and the distant rumble of 460-horsepower engines may not have seemed wholly congruous when the defenders of the town first heard it.

The plains of the surrounding Seine valley offered a good five miles of open ground that the approaching machines would have to cover before reaching their objective. This gave the defenders some cause for hope, and when the distant silhouettes of enemy tanks finally did appear, the two to three thousand soldiers in Troyes dug in determinedly.

Atop a gently sloping rise that grew out of the valley plains, the company of medium tanks spread out into “desert formation,” about a hundred yards apart. Supported by infantry in half-tracks and by self-propelled assault howitzers, the attack group numbered some 800 troops in all. They did not pause when enemy artillery fire began to burst around them; rather, they picked up speed, and were soon traveling at hill throttle.

The infantry half-tracks veered sharply, attempting to throw the defending gun crews off their marks by deliberately heading for spots where enemy shells had already burst. Meanwhile the tanks’ guns fired continuously, the crews having been rigorously trained in the practice of what their divisional commander called “violent execution of fire and maneuver.” Accounting for the pitch and roll of their speeding vehicles, the gunners required no pause to hit their targets.

As they neared the town, the roaring 30-ton monsters jumped a seven-foot-wide antitank ditch. At the same time, they disposed of the first enemy enfilades. The tanks then sped on through the streets of Troyes to cut the defenders’ lines of supply and communication. The armored infantry and mobile artillery meanwhile moved in to engage in street fighting.

By dawn of the next day, the battle was over. A superior defending force had been first stunned and then crushed by the audacity and speed of the attackers. This was mobile armored warfare at its best. But the tank crews did not stop to congratulate themselves. Securing a Seine crossing, they continued their dramatic sweep through the French countryside.

The open plains and historic towns of France had seen many such engagements during the war, but the battle for Troyes had a twist: The date was August 25—26, 1944, and the defending troops were German. The blitzing attackers were moving east, not west, and they were Americans. Yet in the quality of their tactics and leadership, they could easily have been mistaken for the best of the 1940 German panzer crews.

The credit for this achievement belongs to the man who had trained and was in command of the tanks that hit Troyes: Major General John S. Wood, of the American 4th Armored Division. Britain’s great military theorist Basil Liddell Hart would later call Wood “the Rommel of the American armoured forces” and “one of the most dynamic commanders of armour in World War II.” Wood was all this and more. For while his tactical acumen accounted for dozens of victories such as that at Troyes, his strategic insight was perhaps even more profound.

During the summer and fall of 1944, Wood perceived more clearly than any other Allied commander the opportunity for an early defeat of Germany. By employing the same bold strategic method—blitzkrieg—that had brought Hitler himself to within a hairbreadth of European rule, Wood believed that the Allied armies could deal the fatal blow to the Nazi Reich within mere weeks of their breakout from the Normandy beachhead on July 25. Personally irrepressible and outspoken, Wood made these opinions known—first to his various corps commanders, then to his Third Army leader, General George S. Patton, and finally to the high command. Wood’s recommendations consistently fell on deaf—or, more often, annoyed— ears, and his suggestions turned to protests. In December 1944 he was dismissed by General Patton and sent home.

But Wood’s efforts were not in vain. By spearheading the conquest of France, he dramatically demonstrated the validity of employing bold armored strategy; and despite his dismissal, the ultimate conquest of the Reich would come only after the Allied high command realized that Wood had in fact been right, and adopted his methods on a grand scale.

 

THE ATHLETIC AND HIGH-SPIRITED SON OF AN ARKANSAS JUDGE, Wood had not as a youth aspired to soldiering. At the age of 16 he was admitted as a sophomore to the University of Arkansas to study chemistry. His characteristic prankishness was demonstrated in his junior year, when he was almost expelled because of, as he later put it, “certain laboratory experiments which led to a series of minor explosions on the steps of the women’s library.” A football star and an exceptional student, Wood readied himself for a career as a chemist upon graduation from the university. Then a teammate suggested that he come along to West Point—the military academy would offer them a chance to get in a couple of extra years of football. (In the early years of the century, colleges were not fussy about sports eligibility.)

At the Point, Wood quickly made a strong impression. Repelled by the plebe system, he undertook the tutoring of less academically gifted cadets and soon earned the sobriquet Professor (also shortened to just P). This sympathy for his fellow soldiers would grow with time, as would his impatience with unenlightened army traditions. “Individual hazing has no place in the formation of true military character,” he wrote; nor did he think that the mentality such behavior bred would be useful in the army, “where sensitive, intense natures are needed as well as the thicker-skinned, hard boiled types.”

While West Point, Wood became acquainted with many of the men who would go on to become leaders of the American effort in the Second World War—Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Carl Spaatz, and Jacob Devers, to name only a few. But the most portentous acquaintance he made was that of George Patton. Wood graduated after Patton, but the two shared common interests—primarily an intense preoccupation with military history—and their paths were destined to cross many times.

Following his graduation, Wood was posted to coastal artillery, then to ordnance, and finally to field artillery. He served in France during the First World War, seeing action in such battles as Chateau-Thierry, and was sent to the staff college at Langres, where he was a classmate of Patton’s. Wood was deeply disturbed by the static carnage of the 1917—18 experience, and when tanks made their debut, he, like Patton, was enthusiastic. But on their return to the United States, the two men began to display different approaches to the new weapons of movement, and it was these differences that would later cast them into separate camps.

Armor’s brief moment in the sun during the First World War was enough to convince progressive officers the world over that the future of land warfare lay with this new military arm. At the Battle of Amiens on August 8, 1918, British tanks not only broke the seemingly unbreakable trench lines but also created a panic among the German troops even more demoralizing than the Allied guns.

The implications of this development were dramatic, and the first theorists to fully comprehend them were a pair of Englishmen: Basil Liddell Hart and J.F.C. Fuller. During the decade of the 1920s, Liddell Hart and Fuller called with increasing insistence for the adoption of innovative armored techniques that had as their goal not merely tactical successes such as Amiens but spectacular strategic achievements. While Liddell Hart and Fuller’s own British army did not, as a whole, subscribe to these radical theories, several influential German officers did; and it was in later describing the style of warfare that burst on the world in 1939 that Fuller gave perhaps the best short summary to date of the secret of blitzkrieg:

It was to employ mobility as a psychological weapon: not to idle but to move; not to move to idle but to move to terrify, to bewilder, to perplex, to cause consternation, doubt and confusion in the rear of the enemy, which rumor would magnify until panic became monstrous. In short, its aim was to paralyze not only the enemy’s command but also his government, and paralyzation would be in direct proportion to velocity.

This effect could be heightened, Liddell Hart emphasized, by adopting the strategy of the “indirect approach,” whereby armored divisions would avoid striking along a broad front or attempting to move an enemy’s front line backward. Instead of such “linear” strategy, the tanks should adopt the practice of concentrating at unexpected points on the line with devastating strength, thereafter roaring into the enemy’s rear areas.

In the United States (as in Great Britain), these theories were dismissed from the beginning by the army’s senior officers. Fuller’s pronounced emphasis on the political paralysis (rather than the physical destruction) of the enemy as the primary goal of armored warfare conflicted sharply with the dominant American military tradition. As established by Ulysses S. Grant, that tradition was based on the steady, brutal grinding down of the enemy army along a linear front by overwhelming numbers of troops (primarily infantry) sustained by superior amounts of supplies. That this attitude remained preeminent in America during the interwar years was demonstrated in 1925, when the American general-services schools dismissed one of Liddell Hart’s most important works as “of negative value to the instructors of these schools.”

Certainly there were advocates of armor in the United States Army during the 1920s and 1930s—but the goals of these advocates were not in all cases similar or even consistent. The examples of Wood and Patton provide a case in point. The National Defense Act of 1920 placed America’s tank forces—blindly but predictably—under the command of the infantry. For those officers who, like Wood and Patton, had already begun to explore the possibilities of armored divisions, the question now became how to proceed. Patton elected to return to his old arm and first love, the horse cavalry. Wood, too, returned to his roots: artillery. But while Patton dreamed of finding ways to breathe new life into traditional cavalry tactics by replacing his horses with tanks and armored cars, Wood soon became involved with mobile artillery, opening his mind far more hilly to the strategic possibilities of armor.

A gifted linguist, Wood went beyond Fuller and Liddell Hart to read France’s outspoken armor advocate, Charles de Gaulle, and Germany’s Heinz Guderian, father of the panzer division. By the early 1930s Wood was reporting to the War Department that the next war would “be one of rapid movement, of motors, tanks and aviation, of indirect approach and deep penetrations, regardless of flank protection and linear formations.” In 1936 Wood was scoffed at by fellow officers for turning down an assignment at the Army War College and instead seizing the chance to command the army’s only independent truck-drawn howitzer organization in Des Moines, Iowa.

The list of Wood’s unusual tendencies did not end with accepting what seemed to others obscure postings—he soon gained a reputation for readily voiced intolerance of narrow thinking in both subordinates and superiors. This in turn led to his being branded, in the words of General Ben Lear (later commander of U.S. Army ground forces in Europe), “obstreperous, hard to handle, a difficult subordinate.” In the close-knit world of the interwar American army, professional criticism of—and intellectual condescension to—superiors was a dangerous path to follow.

But Wood’s attraction to radical armored doctrine (and hence his disagreements with his colleagues) was not purely strategic in origin. It also centered on one of Liddell Hart and Fuller’s incidental goals: greatly reduced casualty lists. For beneath Wood’s buttoned-up exterior beat the heart of a man who, though a stickler for details of dress and deportment, cared for the average soldier to a degree not often found in the U.S. officer corps. A speech he later gave to his officers and noncoms on the eve of the 4th Armored Division’s departure for Europe summarized this attitude:

You may have only eight, or even thousands of men in your unit, but always remember—each one has a Mother, Father, perhaps a wife and children. They want that soldier home, after this war ends! So you invest them carefully—lead them, don’t just order them! Reconnoiter, see, estimate, what you are taking them into, weigh every advantage and disadvantage of your plan, attack fast and hard, pound out a win and come out of it with 90 percent of your people and equipment! Less than that—you are only a brass-buttoned figurehead!

Such an approach was clearly at variance with the haughty posturing of men like Patton, who would be well remembered for his physical and verbal abuse of soldiers suffering from battle fatigue during the Sicilian campaign. Indeed, the differences in style between the two men were marked on every level. Patton, ever the flamboyant prima donna, enjoyed showy displays of decorations and ivory-handled revolvers, and spent his idle moments practicing his “war face” in the mirror. Wood, while always correct in appearance, disdained the wearing of ribbons as well as any more flashy display of military etiquette than the simple salute (which he insisted on). Patton was tall and fair, a California aristocrat. Wood was stocky, heavy-browed, and pugnacious. Patton’s principal nonmilitary activity was womanizing. Wood was a devoted fancier of roses. Given such contrasts, it is perhaps a surprise, then, that they should have been friends.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Wood often found himself posted to the same location as Patton, and the two spent much time together. Patton, Wood later recalled, “possessed a splendid library of military works, and we read everything from the maxims of Sun Tsu and Confucius to the latest articles in our own and foreign military publications. We often sat, glass in hand, arguing loud and long on war, ancient and modern, with its battles and commanders.”

By 1941 Wood had been made artillery commander of Patton’s 2nd Armored Division, but he didn’t stay at the post long enough for any differences in strategic thought or style of command to become pronounced.

That same year he was promoted to brigadier general and transferred to Combat Command A of the 5th Armored Division. (American armored divisions were divided into three combat commands, or battalion task forces, two labeled “A” and “B” and one held in reserve, or “R.”) In June 1942 Wood was given the twin stars of a major general, along with the task of training the 4th Armored Division for combat abroad.

It was in Europe that Wood was to test his theories in the field and under fire for the first time. The job of leading his young division across France involved many important discoveries for him, none more critical than the realization that the arguments he had enjoyed with Patton could have far more than merely intellectual repercussions.

Shortly before the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, Basil Liddell Hart spent some time discussing the upcoming European campaign with various Allied leaders. The experience was a distressing one for Liddell Hart, who discovered that the “prevailing mood” among the Allied high command was that the campaign would be all too reminiscent of the nightmare of the First World War. Even Patton—who had already earned a reputation for tactical boldness in North Africa and Sicily—believed that in Normandy the Allies would be forced, as Liddell Hart recalled the conversation, to “‘go back to 1918 methods’ and could not repeat the kind of deep and swift armoured drives that the Germans, especially Guderian and Rommel, had carried out in 1940” in France.

Discouraged that such a linear mentality should be dominant in Allied thinking, Liddell Hart was happily surprised by his discussions with General Wood—so surprised that he spent a full two days with the 4th Armored’s commander. Liddell Hart found Wood “more conscious of the possibilities of a deep exploitation and the importance of speed than anyone else.” Such consciousness, however, did not change the fact that Wood was only a divisional commander, and that his 4th Armored had yet to receive its baptism by fire. Whether the rigidly traditional strategic approaches of Eisenhower, Bradley, and even Patton could be overcome by field commanders such as Wood remained to be seen.

Shortly before the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944, Basil Liddell Hart spent some time discussing the upcoming European campaign with various Allied leaders. The experience was a distressing one for Liddell Hart, who discovered that the “prevailing mood” among the Allied high command was that the campaign would be all too reminiscent of the nightmare of the First World War. Even Patton—who had already earned a reputation for tactical boldness in North Africa and Sicily—believed that in Normandy the Allies would be forced, as Liddell Hart recalled the conversation, to “‘go back to 1918 methods’ and could not repeat the kind of deep and swift armoured drives that the Germans, especially Guderian and Rommel, had carried out in 1940” in France.

For Wood, the first great test came during the American army’s Cobra operation of July 25, more than a month and a half after D-Day. For weeks the Allied troops had been penned up in Normandy and on the Cotentin Peninsula—Patton’s prediction about “1918 methods” was turning out to be grimly accurate. The high command was as much to blame for this fact as was the vicious bocage, or “hedgerow,” countryside of northwestern France. In both the eastern sector of the bridgehead (controlled by Bernard Law Montgomery’s British and Canadian Twenty-first Army Group) and the western (under the supervision of Omar Bradley’s American Twelfth Army Group), a startling inability to exploit successes became apparent.

The simple fact that every attempt to break out of the beachhead had failed miserably finally drove Bradley to accept one of Liddell Hart and Fuller’s prime directives—that armored attacks not be launched along broad fronts but concentrated at key points. The Cobra plan called for massive air bombardment of a strip of road 7 ,000 yards long, followed by infantry attacks to open a corridor. Armored exploitation by the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th armored divisions would ensue. These units were to move south and seize the vital town of Avranches, gateway to the Brittany Peninsula.

From the moment Cobra struck, Wood demonstrated the hallmarks of his command style. Straying from the letter of the plan, the 4th Armored Division was first to seize vital road centers and strategic towns, including Avranches. Racing with dramatic speed, Wood concerned himself far less with the destruction of German units in his area than with disrupting the enemy rear and securing avenues of attack.

Wood covered the 50 miles to Avranches in just five days, and he was soon joined by the 6th Armored Division under the immensely capable General Robert Grow. On August 1 both divisions were placed under the operational control of the newly formed American Third Army, commanded by Patton. With Avranches secure, Patton—in accordance with the pre-invasion plan drawn up by the high command—ordered Wood to continue south and then southwest into Brittany, while Grow was sent due west to execute a bold, lightning-fast move to the port of Brest.

The Third Army’s wild rampage through Brittany obscured one central fact—west was precisely the wrong direction for American armor to be moving. Patton described this part of the campaign delightedly as “a typical cavalry action in which, to quote the words of the old story, ‘The soldier went out and charged in all directions at the same time, with a pistol in each hand, and a saber in the other.'” This description amply displays Patton’s greatest deficiency as a tank commander: his tendency to think as a traditional cavalry tactician and to care little what direction he was attacking in, so long as he was attacking.

No one saw this problem more clearly or felt its effects more severely than Wood. On the first day of his advance south from Avranches, Wood traveled 30 miles and almost reached the vital crossroads of Rennes. Bypassing its strong defenses, he raced on to the bottom of the peninsula— and came to the realization that he was only slightly closer to Brest than he was to Paris. His commanders claimed that they needed Brest’s port facilities, as well as those of the southern Brittanic ports of Vannes and Lorient. But Wood believed that the Germans would be well dug in at these ports (they were), that they would be likely to destroy the port facilities before they surrendered (they did), and that there were not many German troops blocking his path to the Seine (there were not).

If he now could induce Patton, Bradley, and Eisenhower to change their plan and consent to an immediate turn eastward, a long encirclement of the German armies in France could be achieved with a speed and decisiveness that would match the Germans’ own 1940 campaign. Assuming that approval for this idea would be forthcoming, Wood turned away from Brittany and ordered his lead units to advance southeast to Angers.

“When General Patton found out about this, he exploded,” a member of Patton’s staff later recalled. But Wood was never one to shy away from confrontations with his superiors when strategic questions that affected the lives of his men were involved. When his corps commander demanded to know why Wood was moving in a direction diametrically opposed to that indicated in his orders, Wood angrily protested, “They [the high command] are winning this war the wrong way!” But Patton persisted, and Wood was forced to turn west to Vannes on August 5. After reaching that town, he wired a message to Patton: “Trust we can turn around and get headed in the right direction soon.” But it was to be 10 days before Patton would allow Wood to proceed east—10 days, as much time as it had taken for the Germans to defeat the French and British in the field in 1940.

Meanwhile Wood’s popularity among his own troops was growing. They dubbed him “Tiger Jack,” both because of his habit of pacing angrily when perturbed and because of his ability to roar back at Patton. Also growing was the fearful respect accorded his division by the Germans. One German general, who was captured in a surprise raid by Wood’s men, announced that he “would like to meet that general who commands Fourth Armored Division—he is outstanding among generals of American divisions.”

But none of this assuaged Wood’s bitterness over Patton’s restraining order. “I could have been there,” Wood later recalled, “in the enemy vitals, in two days. But no! We were forced to adhere to the original plan—with the only armor available, and ready to cut the enemy to pieces. It was one of the colossally stupid decisions of the war.” As always, Wood was more than willing to express such opinions to his superiors. He encountered Patton soon after the Brittany fiasco, and that general, referring to Wood’s conduct during that episode, remarked, “You almost got tried for that.” To which Wood replied, “Someone should have been tried but it certainly was not I.”

Hitler’s own unwillingness to pull back to a coherent line of defense mitigated the possibly disastrous effects of the Brittany sideshow—but the Allied high command soon gave the Germans yet another opportunity to escape disaster. Instead of dashing straight for the Seine and destroying both the German lines of supply and the Wehrmacht’s only avenue of retreat (at minimal cost to their own forces), Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, and Eisenhower all became attracted to the idea of enveloping the Germans in a small pocket centered around the Falaise plain south of Caen. If they could achieve this encirclement, they could engage in as battle of annihilation.

The plan that led to the Battle of the Falaise Pocket would have been merely backward and brutal had it worked. But having decided on a “short envelopment” (as opposed to the “long envelopment” that could have been achieved to the east), the Allied commanders next demonstrated that they lacked the steadiness of purpose to execute even this flawed maneuver. On August 13, Bradley—fearful of running headlong into the British and the Canadians—halted the southern American pincer at Argentan. To the north, Montgomery proved too cautious to break through to the Americans with a decisive stroke. This left a wide gap between the two Allied spearheads, which was not sealed until August 20. Some 50,000 Germans were taken prisoner and 10,000 were killed inside the Falaise Pocket, but another 40,000 had already escaped to harry the Allied attempt at a long envelopment at the Seine.

That such an envelopment was still possible had been apparent since August 15, when the American tanks had finally resumed their eastward advance. Wood’s 4th Armored Division led the way: Before the end of August 16, Combat Command A had reached Orléans, south of Paris.

Making their presence felt during this drive were the daring pilots of the 19th Tactical Air Command, screaming out of the sky in their P-47 Thunderbolts. Directed by air liaison officers who actually rode with the armored columns, the pilots became an integral part of the American drive, in the best blitzkrieg style. The 4th Armored Division soon became the 19th TAC’s favorite ground unit, and not simply because of the cases of captured cognac that Wood periodically sent to the pilots. Wood’s troops, 19th TAC commander General O.P. Weyland later recalled, “took immediate and full advantage of friendly air power and didn’t whimper if they got a bloody nose in an engagement. Air-Ground teamwork was terrific.”

Because of the success of this mid-August drive, the American spearhead units were still in a position to undo the damage of Falaise and complete the long envelopment at the Seine. But astoundingly, Patton—backed up by the high command—again halted his troops, for a crucial forty-eight-hour period on August 16. The official explanation was supply difficulties. But as much trouble as the Allied high command was having supplying its forward units, it was having more trouble comprehending the breathtaking speed of the American drive and the extent of the Wehrmacht’s collapse in the face of it. This was precisely the kind of war that the American senior commanders had thought it would be impossible to wage—and if there was one quality that the high command lacked, it was the ability to adapt and improvise quickly.

Wood’s handling of supply questions belied the high command’s repeated supply concerns—and because supply would continue to be used as the main rationale for slowing the American advance, it is worth noting how the 4th Armored Division dealt with the problem. A high priority was placed on the capture of enemy gasoline stores, and gas was also flown in from the Allied rear. Supply trucks carried at least double their usual loads, and instead of riding to the rear of the column, they stayed close to the advance combat units. Serviceable vehicles were seized wherever they were found. American kitchen trucks were stripped and packed with gas and ammunition—rations were loaded onto the combat vehicles. Wood’s grasp of every detail of mobile armored warfare was instinctive and uncanny.

By the time the American troops were finally unleashed once more, it was too late to prevent a large-scale German retreat across the Seine. The tanks of the 4th Armored Division nonetheless pursued the German troops across the open ground between the Seine and the German frontier—and as they did, the high command made another colossal blunder. In early August, Eisenhower began openly promulgating his plan for the conquest of Germany: “the broad front strategy.” All of the Allied armies were to close on the German frontier simultaneously. The front would be steadily rolled up at all points, as had been attempted during the First World War.

The plan was classically American, sheer linear thinking that had comparatively little relevance to mobile armored warfare. Instead of outmaneuvering the enemy, you overwhelmed him. Many American field commanders were enraged, none more so than Wood. “There was no conception of far-reaching directions for armor in the minds of our top people” was his terse and (considering the circumstances) charitable postwar assessment. By August 31, with a dramatic victory at Troyes under its belt, the 4th Armored Division had crossed the Meuse River at Verdun, and was faced by a completely disorganized and demoralized enemy. Yet Eisenhower was still talking about abandoning this dramatic undertaking to ensure that some measure of success would be achieved by all Allied units, including the British and Canadians to the north, who were a full hundred miles behind Wood’s spearheads.

The cost of this decision was to prove dramatic, and the explanations offered for it utterly inadequate. Eisenhower continued to claim that he worried about the dangers of supplying armored columns that were traveling farther and farther from their supply sources. Yet as Wood had already demonstrated, America’s armored units, by scrounging, innovating, and economizing, could survive far longer in the field than the extravagant Allied supply estimates believed possible. (The average Allied division in Europe was scheduled by the high command to consume 700 tons of supplies a day—the Germans were fighting on 200.)

Given the remarkable performance of America’s armored divisions generally—and Wood’s 4th Armored in particular—there seems no credible way to dispute Liddell Hart’s claim that if the American tankers had been allowed to continue their advance, and to slice through Germany by way of the southern “indirect” route, the war against Hitler could well have ended in the fall of 1944. Instead, the Germans pulled together a tenacious defense and another two seasons of brutal fighting were ensured.

During September and November 1944, the Germans not only rallied for a determined defense of their frontier but even, in some areas of the Western Front, managed to stage counterattacks. The most ambitious of these were a series of spoiling raids. Designed to keep the Americans so off-balance they would be unable to maintain the offensive, the attacks were opened by the Fifth Panzer Army under Hasso von Manteuffel against the 4th Armored Division at Arracourt, just east of Nancy, on September 19. Wood called this “the greatest tank battle of the war on the Allied front,” a justifiable claim if judged by the ferocity with which the division fought against superior German numbers and tanks. Over four days of fighting, Wood crippled two new panzer brigades, knocking out 150 increasingly precious German tanks and killing hundreds of enemy soldiers. The cost to his own division was 21 tanks destroyed and 25 men killed.

Stung by this unexpected display of brilliant armored defense, Manteuffel was forced to withdraw. But that such attacks could be staged at all indicated that the Wehrmacht was far from beaten. Wood recognized this, and he began to protest ever more vehemently against being held back. His protests led not only to violent disagreements with his corps commanders but also to increasing friction with Patton’s Third Army headquarters.

Much of the fame that Patton had enjoyed as a result of his Third Army’s advance across France belonged rightfully to Wood and the 4th Division. To Patton’s credit, he acknowledged this debt throughout the summer and early fall. But by November the situation seems to have changed. By now Patton’s irritation at Eisenhower’s restraining orders was—like Wood’s—considerable, and he consistently found ways to circumvent those orders and go on the offensive. But his plans of attack in the month of November, when he faced a reconstituted German defense, again began to display the strategic shortcomings that had periodically plagued his actions.

Both Patton and his Twelfth Army Group commander, Omar Bradley, conducted their initial attempts to break through the German frontier without any apparent indication that they had learned the lesson of Cobra: that armored attacks must be concentrated. With Bradley’s approval, Patton once again indulged his taste for attacking in all directions, stringing his forces out along the entire Third Army front between the Moselle and Saar rivers. This allowed the Germans, under General Hermann Balck, to parry each attack skillfully with inferior forces. As the autumn rains turned the ground to mud, Patton’s ill-conceived assault bogged down.

The only unit to achieve any meaningful advance was Wood’s 4th Armored Division. Forgoing Thanksgiving turkey, Wood had by November 25 pushed most of his unit across the Saar River into the area just south of what would become, in a matter of weeks, the launching of Hitler’s Ardennes offensive— the Battle of the Bulge. His division’s progress in late November surprised Wood himself, for, as he later said, “there was no opportunity for the maneuver of armor at which we were adept.” The enemies now were many—Wood cited the “fanatical resistance of the enemy, bad weather, soft terrain, [and] heavy artillery fire.” That Wood nonetheless made progress was fully appreciated by the Germans—by now they, too, had taken to calling him “Tiger Jack,” and in his radio addresses Joseph Goebbels had launched a series of tirades about the “butchers” of the American 4th Armored Division.

Wood, however, remained dissatisfied with both the general disposition of forces in his area and the strategic directives of his superiors, and he continued to say so. By early December, Patton had had enough. With a suddenness that stunned the men of the 4th Armored Division (some broke down in tears), Patton relieved Wood of his command for reasons of “health,” and Wood was sent back to the United States for “a rest.”

Patton’s explanation for this move seems, even today, more than a little disingenuous: “Unquestionably, in a rapid moving advance, [Wood] is the greatest division commander I have ever seen, but when things get sticky he is inclined to worry too much, which keeps him from sleeping and wears him down, and makes it difficult to control his operations.”

Things had certainly gotten “sticky” in November—and the fault had been largely Patton’s. That stickiness translated into casualties for Wood’s division, without any sufficiently dramatic advance—something that Wood had always found infuriating. As to Wood’s being “worn down,” it is certainly true that both he and his division had been continuously involved in some of the most exhausting action of the European campaign ever since the Cobra breakout; but other commanders had been involved for as long or longer, and some of these were to stay on for many months to come.

Wood’s own explanation for his relief seems far more credible than Patton’s: “Perhaps I had been too outspoken in my criticism of the static minds and rigid conceptions of the high command in Brittany… And perhaps I had been too emphatic in my protests against linear employment of our forces, particularly armor, in frontal attacks all along the front instead of in deep thrusts in decisive directions.” Patton and Eisenhower told Wood that he was being sent back to the States to be prepared for a higher command, but on his return Wood was appointed to the Armored Replacement Center at Fort Knox. Safely tucked away at this post, he would not again challenge the decisions of his superiors.

Although he did not return to Europe before the end of the war, Wood saw his theories of armored warfare validated by other commanders during the German campaign. Hobbled by the high command’s linear strategy until early spring of 1945, the Americans finally did break out along the Rhine River, sending large armored formations into Germany to execute a series of deep, bold penetrations and encirclements. These culminated in the dramatic sweep to the Elbe River, a campaign after Wood’s own heart: American armored columns reached the river just three weeks after the breakout and soon linked up with the Russians, finally shattering the Nazi Reich. Remarkably but typically, Wood never gave voice to recrimination during the two decades between the end of the war and his death in 1966. He stayed in the army until the late 1950s, and after his retirement kept up an active interest in national and international affairs. In an “autobituary” that he left behind, he wrote of himself:”…[He] hated nothing except meanness and cruelty. His friendships and loyalties were deep and abiding and he could not understand nor condone disloyalty.”

It was perhaps this inability to understand disloyalty that kept Wood from ever delving too deeply into the circumstances surrounding his relief. “George Patton,” Wood recalled, “I loved like a brother, and Eisenhower I had liked since my first sight of him when he reported… as a new cadet [to West Point].”

With that, Wood let the controversies surrounding the strategic prosecution of the European campaign and his own dismissal simply fade away; and the cults of personality that grew to surround both Eisenhower and Patton have long kept Wood in relative and unjustified obscurity. But with time, he may once again receive the recognition accorded him during the war—by other Allied officers, by the men who served under him, and by the Germans he fought against—as America’s finest commander of armor. MHQ

CALEB CARR, an MHQ contributing editor, writes often on military matters. His most recent book is is the author of The Devil Soldier (Random House)

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1992 issue (Vol. 4, No. 4) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The American Rommel

 

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