Omar Bradley and George S. Patton. National Archives
Omar Bradley and George S. Patton. National Archives

Omar Bradley deserves reconsideration as the commander who put Patton in the right place at the right time

Shortly before the American invasion force embarked for Normandy on June 6, 1944, Gen. Omar Bradley, assigned to command 12th Army Group, convened his corps and division commanders at Bristol for a final review. There, General Bradley, the “old schoolteacher” from West Point and the Infantry School, personally conducted the class of generals. D-Day was full of awful imponderables. Facing the unknown, Bradley fell back upon the familiar—the world of the classroom and of the Missouri schoolteacher father he idolized. One by one, he called each general up to a map of France, proffered a pointer, and asked each to describe in detail his outfit’s scheme of maneuver. Maxwell Taylor, one of the generals present that day, could not help but reflect on a similar scene that had unfolded very differently just a year earlier, when George S. Patton Jr. met with his commanders before the assault on Sicily. For Taylor, the contrast between the two men was stark. Patton had “turned on us with a roar and, waving a menacing swagger stick under our noses, concluded: ‘I never want to see you bastards again unless it’s at your post on the shores of Sicily.’” But when Bradley concluded his lesson, he “folded his hands behind his back, his eyes got a little moist, and in lieu of a speech, he simply said, ‘Good luck, men.’”

Omar Bradley entered World War II as Patton’s junior, but by the critical phase of the European campaign had emerged as Patton’s commanding officer. Nevertheless, throughout the war and in the long popular memory of that war, he found himself unable to emerge from the other man’s shadow. Different from Patton in almost every way—personal background, politics, social class, military philosophy, personality, skill set, appearance—Bradley was inextricably bound to him, both during the war and through history’s perspective. Patton’s partisans sometimes say that it was “conventional” commanders like Bradley who thwarted their idol’s genius, and even some of Bradley’s admirers would not entirely disagree with the opinion of 60 Minutes’ professional curmudgeon, Andy Rooney: “It was because we had so few soldiers like [Bradley] that we won the war.” Yet the strange truth was that these antithetical military leaders catalyzed each other through their very opposition. Bradley didn’t like Patton; Bradley even feared Patton. But Bradley had the courage and intelligence to use Patton as no other commander could have or probably would have, and Patton, for his part, hungered to be so used.

Bradley spent much of his career teaching, first in the ROTC department at South Dakota State College, then as a mathematics instructor at West Point before going on to the U.S. Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. There, he was one of the instructors George C. Marshall assembled to lead what became known as the Benning Revolution, an exorcism of the trench warfare tactics of World War I, and the inculcation of the open warfare doctrine born of the new, highly mobile technology of combat with aircraft, tanks, and motor transport. As chief of the school’s weapons section, Bradley created the curriculum in traditional and advanced army weaponry.

After teaching at the Infantry School, Bradley enrolled as a student at the U.S. Army War College in 1933. He was disappointed by the academic exercises, which were 100 percent hypothetical and based on data available to the man on the street, mostly newspaper and magazine articles. When, on graduating from the War College, he was asked to return to West Point as a tactical officer—one of a small cadre charged with teaching cadets the essentials of being soldier-officers—he eagerly accepted the assignment.

The War College had taught him one thing: the incoming U.S. Army officer corps needed a stiff dose of reality. Bradley wanted to bring something of Marshall’s Benning Revolution to West Point by developing officers who were capable of doing more than following orders. From 1934 through 1938, he mentored the generation who would serve in junior commands during World War II and Korea, and rise to higher ranks during the Vietnam and cold war eras. Five of his students became four-star generals, a list comprising Creighton W. Abrams Jr., Bruce Palmer Jr., Andrew J. Goodpaster Jr., John L. Throckmorton, and William Westmoreland. Westmoreland in particular was impressed by Bradley’s pedagogical style: “quiet, sympathetic…patient,” yet frank and firm.

Westmoreland recalled summer maneuvers in 1936, when he commanded a cadet battalion assigned to defend a hill. When the troops opposing him succeeded in taking the hill, Bradley, who was umpiring the maneuvers, summoned Westmoreland to his side:

“Mr. Westmoreland,” he said, “look back at that hill. Look at it now from the standpoint of the enemy.”

Turning, I became aware for the first time of a concealed route of approach that it was logical for an attacker to use. Because I had failed to cover it with my defense, he as umpire had ruled for the attacking force.

“It is fundamental,” Major Bradley said calmly but firmly, “to put yourself always in the position of the enemy.”

Bradley was not interested in scolding Westmoreland, but in ensuring that he took away from the experience of defeat an element that would be key to victory: the principle of putting yourself in the place of the enemy. It is common to speak of great commanders—men like Napoleon, Lee, and Rommel—as having possessed a genius for getting inside the mind of their opponent. When Bradley counseled Cadet Westmoreland to put himself in the position of the enemy, he meant nothing so mystical. Instead, he brought Westmoreland literally to his opponent’s position and invited him—again, literally—to see what the enemy saw and, from that perspective, to ponder the available options. As Bradley understood tactics, putting yourself in the enemy’s position was a practical means of getting inside his head. The exchange with Westmoreland was vintage Bradley, eliciting a principle of war fighting that is profound yet founded on the commonest of common sense.

It was common sense, too, that led him to look beyond West Point for the education of a junior officer corps both sufficiently competent and sufficiently numerous to lead combat in World War II. As commandant of the Infantry School—Marshall’s old job—from March 1941 to February 1942, Bradley did not invent the concept of training officers from the ranks, but he was the chief architect of the Officer Candidate Schools (OCS), creating a model program at Fort Benning and promoting its spread throughout the army. He knew that West Point and college ROTC programs could not be counted on to produce enough adequately trained officers to meet the demand, while National Guard officers tended to be poorly trained, and Reserve officers were just too old. Through OCS, Bradley ensured that the army would have plenty of company-grade officers.

No one would ever have mistaken the warrior Patton for a schoolteacher. But that is exactly how the army first used him in World War II, assigning him to create and run the Desert Training Center in California to educate the nation’s first generation of desert warriors. Although he proved to be an effective mentor, Patton never would have championed a democratic institution like OCS. A military aristocrat, he saw himself as the latest in a line of martial ancestors who had fought in the American Revolution and the Civil War. As a West Point cadet in 1904, he asserted in a letter to his father that, compared with his peers, he belonged “to a different class, a class perhaps almost extinct or one which may have never existed yet as far removed from these lazy, patriotic, or peace soldiers as heaven is from hell.”

If Patton was contemptuous of those outside his class, they, in turn, regarded him and his like with a mixture of ambivalence, scorn, and fear. The professional soldier has always occupied an acutely uncomfortable place in the scheme of the American democratic republic. In World War II, which Americans largely understood as a war of democracy against tyranny, neither the public nor the press were ever sure on what side Patton stood, with his high-booted swaggering and outrageous episodes of apparent brutality, such as slapping two enlisted men (who were suffering from combat fatigue, no less).

To all appearances, Omar Bradley was the exact opposite of Patton. He was the son of dirt-poor Missourians of undistinguished background, whereas Patton was the scion of wealthy Californians with roots in the antebellum aristocracy of Virginia. For Bradley, who enrolled at West Point in 1911, the U.S. Military Academy represented little more than a free college education, an alternative to a life toiling in the Wabash Railroad’s Moberly, Missouri, locomotive shop, whereas Patton worshipped it as the sacred portal that would admit him to the ranks of history’s great warriors. While the American public devoured stories of Patton’s exploits in North Africa, their patience with his pointedly anti-egalitarian excesses grew thin. In the spring of 1943, Bradley took over command of II Corps from Patton. Following Bradley’s capture of the Tunisian stronghold of Bizerte (a victory that yielded 150,000 Italian and 100,000 German POWs), Eisenhower counseled Ernie Pyle, hard-boiled dean of American war correspondents, to “go and discover Bradley.”

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.

That achievement, Bradley’s greatest, came when he was commanding the 12th Army Group in the Allied invasion of Europe. True, he stumbled badly in his failure to plan for warfare in the bocage just beyond the beaches of Normandy; and, also true, his subsequent obsession with capturing Brest in September 1944, well after Brittany had ceased to have immediate strategic importance (thanks to Bradley’s own generalship), squandered resources that would have been better invested in the eastward push. Yet it was Bradley who drew up Operation Cobra, the intricately coordinated breakout from Normandy and the springboard to European liberation. As a commander of combat on a vast scale, this was his masterpiece—yet Operation Cobra has drawn controversial postwar assessments, many turning on the question of Patton’s role in the operation.

Stalled in hedgerow country during the long weeks following D-Day, Bradley abandoned advancing along a broad front and instead concentrated on a 6,000-yard front five miles west of Saint-Lô. Intensive aerial bombardment, closely coordinated with the advance, was to soften the German defensive line, through which the infantry would tear a gap for armor to roll through to the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. This would cut off the German LXXXIV Corps, which held the highway between Saint-Lô and Perriers-Lessay. Once this road was open, the breakthrough could continue along it and be expanded into the general breakout on which the entire invasion hinged. Thus Operation Cobra, as Bradley conceived it. On July 23, 1944, Patton noted in his diary, “Cobra is really a very timid operation…[but] it is the best operation which had been planned so far, and I hope it works.”

The launch of Cobra was bedeviled by bad weather. Scheduled to step off on July 21, it was twice postponed because thick cloud cover grounded the bombers. When weather officers predicted a clear day for July 24, Bradley authorized the bombers to take off from their English bases, but when clouds persisted over the target areas, he ordered their recall. One group failed to get the message and dropped their ordnance through the clouds, directly on the U.S. 30th Division, inflicting heavy casualties. Bradley relaunched on July 25, with the same disastrous result.

He went to bed that night thinking that Cobra would prove an abortive failure. He was wrong. The air attacks continued through July 26, and the infantry advanced according to plan, sending battered German defenders into full retreat. On the morning of July 27, “Lightning Joe” Collins, commanding VII Corps, pushed his armor through the gap torn by bombers and infantry assault, just as Bradley had planned. Bradley had his breakthrough and did not hesitate to exploit it, rewriting operational orders at noon on July 27. Originally, VII Corps was to have advanced to Coutances, cutting across VIII Corps’ route of advance. Now he ordered both corps to roll down the Cotentin Peninsula together, pushing all the way to Avranches, from which all of Brittany could be overrun.

Up to this point, Patton had been idling in the wings, and up to this point, Bradley had gotten along without him. In truth, Bradley was not pleased to have Patton in his command. When Eisenhower informed Bradley at the end of April 1944 that he had cabled General Marshall his intention to send the troublesome Patton back to the States, Bradley “fully concurred” and also agreed with his selection of Courtney Hodges to command Third Army, which had been created expressly for Patton. Bradley believed that “Patton was a superb field general and leader—perhaps our very best,” but his “many human and professional flaws…held the potential for…disaster.” The depth of Bradley’s misgivings about Patton may be gauged not only by his willingness to see a brilliant combat commander sacrificed, but to condone his replacement by Hodges, an officer about whom Bradley had begun to “fret privately” when he was tapped to command First Army in Bradley’s army group.

All this changed when, having finally achieved a faster and bigger breakthrough in Normandy than he had imagined possible, Bradley needed to transform Operation Cobra from a local breakthrough into a full-scale breakout. Having presented himself to Eisenhower in a state of abject contrition, Patton had been reprieved and was restored to command of Third Army. Now Bradley could not get him into action soon enough. On July 28, he assigned Patton to unofficial command of Troy Middleton’s VIII Corps until August 1, when Third Army would be officially activated with that corps as part of it. Middleton was competent and stable, a slow and steady engine suited to heavy hauling. Patton was volatile and brilliant, a hot machine fit for racing—which was just what Bradley wanted now.

Many historians give Patton the credit for transforming Cobra into the ambitious operation that launched the 12th Army Group’s magnificent advance across France and into Germany. But the fact is that Patton joined Cobra only at Bradley’s invitation and insistence, and only after Bradley himself had begun to expand the operation.

Bradley saw Patton as the very man he needed to ensure that Cobra would be expanded as much as it possibly could. Patton did “transform” Cobra, but it was Bradley who deliberately employed him to do so. It was the beginning of a partnership of oil and water personalities that somehow worked. Ernie Pyle’s anti-Patton had decided to exploit Patton, and, for his part, Patton was only too happy to be exploited.

From the breakout through the rest of the war, the relationship between Bradley and his Third Army commander, though hardly untroubled, was extraordinarily effective. The pair actively conspired to circumvent Bernard Montgomery’s imperious demands to shift the offensive—and substantial resources—northward, for his exclusive use. Against Eisenhower’s directions, if not explicit orders, Bradley allowed Patton to maintain the offensive in the south. By the summer and fall of 1944, Bradley’s view of Patton had matured. He had come to regard him as a powerful weapon. Like all powerful weapons, he was dangerous to use, but what else is the profession of a soldier than the business of using powerful, dangerous weapons?

It is no affront to Bradley to suggest that his signal contribution to victory in Europe was his bold yet sensitive exploitation of a great commander who excelled at making life miserable for those above him. In that way, the GI General became the general’s general. It was a role that not only survived the end of World War II, but became increasingly important in the postwar environment. In his exquisitely uneasy but prodigiously productive relationship with Patton, Bradley fashioned himself into the prototype of a new kind of officer: a military executive operating in a middle realm between tactics and strategy and between combat and politics.

After the war, Bradley served successively as the vigorously reform-minded director of the Veterans Administration, and then as army chief of staff. Next, he was appointed the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It would be far too much to claim that this military executive shaped American cold war policy, but he did advise on it, and, more importantly, he directed much of the military implementation of that policy. The poor Missouri boy who had enrolled at West Point for the sake of a free education became the first in a new line of American commanders, called upon to remain masters of military strategy, tactics, and technology—an arsenal of dangerous, powerful weapons—even as they made themselves masters of politics and diplomacy.