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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.