What if Frank Andrews had survived his 1943 air crash?
The American president’s personal airport is named for him. Gen. George C. Marshall referred to him as the only potential commander of Operation Overlord that he “had a chance to prepare all around.” Yet when the B-24 bomber carrying Lt. Gen. Frank Maxwell “Andy” Andrews crashed into the side of an Icelandic mountain in May 1943, his historical legacy perished as instantly as he did. In fact, no full biography of the namesake of Andrews Air Force Base has ever been published.
The man thus consigned to oblivion—59 years old when he died—once commanded such famed air warriors as H. H. “Hap” Arnold, Carl A. Spaatz, and James H. Doolittle. Before the war, he put his career on the line to champion a heavy bomber that army brass thought too expensive, the now-legendary B-17. From 1939 to 1940, he presided over America’s mobilization for World War II as assistant chief of staff for operations (G-3), becoming the first airman to serve on the General Staff. He held three theaterwide commands, with responsibility for all American land, air, and sea forces: the Caribbean, the Middle East, and then Europe.
Andrews took command of the European theater from Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Allies’ Casablanca Conference in January 1943, which he attended. While Ike led the campaign to drive Axis forces from North Africa, Andrews directed the strategic bombing campaign against the Germans and began the buildup for a widely anticipated cross-Channel invasion.
Clearly, Andrews would have played an important role in the Normandy invasion had he lived. Indeed, after the war, colleagues and family members of the fallen general suggested he might have ended up in command of D-Day and the warfare that followed. That question remains intriguing today, and it leads to another question, just as profound: Would the Great Crusade have taken a different course with Andrews in charge?
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Andrews graduated in 1906 from West Point, where he acquired a lifelong devotion to horsemanship. He would later ride and socialize at army polo events with George S. Patton Jr. and other future generals. In 1917, after eight years of cavalry service, Andrews decided he preferred a mightier steed. The following year, at the relatively advanced age of 34, he earned his wings at Rockwell Field near San Diego, California.
He rose steadily through the ranks of the army’s aviation force. In 1935, army chief of staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur chose him to lead a new combat command called the General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force. Time magazine found the hire notable: “Not since [Theodore Roosevelt] jacked John Joseph Pershing from captain to brigadier general in 1906 had the Army seen so notable a promotion as that which promised last week to elevate Frank Andrews from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general. A onetime cavalryman, Col. Andrews is tough, fiftyish, handsome. Army wives call him the best-looking man in service, like to remember the romantic thrill he gave them in 1914 by taking his bride on a horseback honeymoon in Virginia.”
Andrews’s men remembered him as a pilot of consummate skill who would fly in any weather. In 1935, at the controls of a B-12, he broke three world speed records formerly held by Charles Lindbergh. Asked later whether he wasn’t tempting fate with all the time he spent aloft, Andrews replied, “I don’t want to be one of those generals who die in bed.”
Andrews used his command to push for more resources and greater autonomy for the army’s fliers, and recommended that Boeing’s new, long-range heavy bomber, the B-17, become the backbone of the air power program. In late 1935, newly appointed army chief of staff Gen. Malin Craig and secretary of war Harry H. Woodring overruled Andrews and canceled the B-17 order, reasoning that the army could buy twice as many lighter, shorter-range B-18 Bolos for the same price as the B-17s. Andrews’s bomber advocacy put him so at odds with his superiors that many expected him to retire when his appointment ended in 1939. He didn’t, and the army dispatched him to a minor position at a Texas base as he reverted to his permanent rank of colonel.
Andrews was not in the wilderness for long. He had made such a favorable impression on Marshall while at GHQ Air Force that Marshall, who succeeded Craig as chief of staff, chose him as his G-3 in the summer of 1939. Marshall later said he had refused to take up his appointment as chief of staff unless he could have Andrews.
Marshall went on to pluck Eisenhower, Patton, Spaatz, Mark Clark, and other officers from positions of lower seniority, grooming them as key commanders in the war that just about everyone in Washington knew was coming. But it was Andrews he reached for first.
As G-3, Andrews was in charge of the U.S. Army’s organization and training. In the 15 months he held that position, the army grew from fewer than 200,000 men to more than 600,000. In late May 1940, as Germany’s bold panzer tactics were playing a key role in the fall of France, Andrews convened a meeting of maneuver commanders that led to the creation of the first armored divisions in U.S. Army history.
In November 1940 Marshall moved Andrews to Panama, where he assumed overall command of the Caribbean theater and was charged with guarding the Panama Canal and other American interests against perceived threats from Germany and Japan. Two years later Marshall put Andrews in command of American forces in the Middle East. At his Cairo headquarters and on trips as far afield as Baghdad and Tehran, Andrews worked closely with civilian and military leaders from Britain and other Allied nations.
As he took up his London post in February 1943, Andrews told reporters his goals were to escalate the strategic bombing of German-held territory and “to prepare for the reception of the large U.S. forces who undoubtedly will be brought to the United Kingdom.”
Behind the scenes, he encountered frustrations in pursuing these aims. Troop strength in the European theater fell by nearly half from October 1942 to the end of April 1943, as men and aircraft were diverted to other theaters. Subduing North Africa took far longer and required many more troops than had been expected. The fight against Uboats was succeeding, but bomber forces were being diverted from the air campaign over Europe to escort convoys.
The story of Andrews’s brief tenure in London, then, is a story of great potential rather than major accomplishments. The events of May 3, 1943, would make that potential his legacy.
Andrews and his staff took off that morning for a brief inspection tour of American forces in Iceland. His B-24 was ordered to land at the base in Prestwick, Scotland, for a weather briefing; instead it flew on, even after the crew was advised of the poor flying conditions over Iceland: overcast, with a ceiling of 800 feet, visibility one mile, and heavy icing likely at an altitude of only 1,000 feet.
Those who knew the general would differ in later years over whether he was piloting the aircraft as it reached the skies over Iceland. Whatever the case, after a low-altitude pass over an RAF airstrip, the plane did not respond to a beacon offering the all-clear to land. Soon thereafter, weaving through the low clouds in an apparent effort to find the main field at Reykjavik, it struck a rocky promontory. Only the tail gunner survived.
Given the progression of commands Marshall gave Andrews, and the fact that he was named to the London post at a time when Allied leaders still hoped to carry out a cross-Channel invasion in 1943, the question inevitably arises: Would Andrews have been the D-Day commander, had he lived?
In 1969 and 1970, historian Murray Green raised it with dozens of former army and air force generals. Fourteen said they believed Andrews had been destined to lead Operation Overlord. “He would have been the Eisenhower, at least, if not more,” Doolittle told Green. “He was a great man, of great breadth of concept, and he would have been one of the truly great leaders if he had survived.”
Marshall himself addressed that topic in interviews conducted by biographer Forrest C. Pogue in the mid-1950s. He observed that Andrews “had a real preparatory course” for the assignment. “He was the first one I was able, you might say, to graduate for his job through the various holdings,” Marshall said. When Pogue asked him directly whether he had intended to put Andrews in charge of the invasion, Marshall replied, “It hadn’t reached that point.” But he went on to recite the commands through which he had rotated Andrews, concluding that Andrews was the “only one I had a chance to prepare all around.”
The man interviewing Marshall came away unconvinced that the architect of American military strategy had intended to put Andrews in charge of the invasion. In Organizer of Victory, the third volume of his Marshall biography, Pogue dismisses that notion as a conceit floated by friends of Andrews. Friends and family did speculate after the war that the fateful “inspection trip” to Iceland had really been the first leg of a secret mission to Washington, where Andrews would be named the Overlord commander.
But all available evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, he died at about the same time Allied leaders realized they could not mount the invasion until 1944.
Between September and December of 1943, it appeared certain that Marshall himself would run the operation. Once various factors combined to rule out that option, Eisenhower was universally viewed as the logical choice, in part because, as Pogue notes, he had already worked closely with the British and had Marshall’s full confidence. Andrews would have met those two standards, and had the advantage of incumbency. It would have been a tough call.
And what if he had led the invasion? It is impossible to know for certain how he might have handled the decisions Ike faced on June 4, 5, and 6; the commencement and conduct of the invasion itself might have been much the same.
But Andrews showed himself to be much more of a risk-taker than Eisenhower, and command decisions in the months following might have been quite different.
Andrews might, for instance, have been more inclined to direct resources to his old friend Patton as he pushed toward Metz, Nancy, and the German border in August 1944. He might have let the Sixth Army Group cross the Rhine River after reaching it in late November, rather than halting the advance as Eisenhower did.
With Allied troops completely encircling massive German forces, the war might have ended by Christmas, sparing hundreds of thousands of lives.
Then again, a more aggressive push across the Rhine might have stretched forces and supply lines too thin, allowing the Germans to mount a successful counterattack.
And there could have been political trouble. Although Andrews was an artful diplomat, he harbored serious doubts about Churchill’s intentions. In April 1943, Andrews confided to his deputy theater commander, Maj. Gen. H. C. Ingles, that he had come to believe the British wanted to “shift the main effort to the Mediterranean area” and did not want Germany “destroyed.”
The clear inference was that Andrews thought Britain wanted to retain an armed German state as a buffer against Soviet expansionism in postwar Europe. If such episodes of mistrust had continued to bedevil Andrews’s relationships with the British during and after the D-Day invasion, the impact on the Allied war effort could have been disastrous.
Still, if Andrews had been tapped as the commander of Operation Overlord, and done as well or better than Ike did in Europe, what then? “He would have been Eisenhower,” said air power pioneer Alexander de Seversky. “He would have been president of the U.S.”
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.