By Walter Holden
During World War II, Terry de la Mesa Allen and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.,were ”relieved” during a victorious campaign. These two men commanded the lst Infantry Division of the United States Army, which, even their strongest critics admitted, under the two generals’ “inspirational leadership,” was by far the best division fighting against the Germans in North Africa and Sicily.
The controversial firing has been argued ever since, bits of blame falling all over the command structure, from Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith, and John Lucas at headquarters to Generals Omar Bradley and George S. Patton, Jr. in battle command.
In August 1943, as the fight for Sicily neared its close, Terry Allen and Ted Roosevelt seemed to be at the top of their game, being widely praised in the press.
Ernie Pyle, who usually favored common infantrymen over generals, wrote, “Major General Terry Allen was one of my favorite people…. If there was one thing Allen lived and breathed for, it was to fight.” Another frontline reporter wrote: “Never in my life have I seen a man so worshipped…. Terry Allen is the greatest leader of men and the greatest tactical general in our army.”
At that time it was the fashion for American generals to be disparaged by the more experienced British, but General Sir Harold Alexander, the senior British commander, called Allen the best division leader he had seen in either world war. When Allen and Roosevelt were being relieved, Time Magazine was on press with a quite favorable cover story on Allen, which ironically appeared before the magazine knew of the firing.
Ted Roosevelt, famous son of a famous president, earned his spurs in World War I combat. His superior called him “an officer of unusual ability” and “an excellent commander of men.” In one battle he was gassed; in another he was shot in the leg, but in both battles he stayed with his command. Between the wars he founded the American Legion. He was a poor politician, but he made millions in business. In World War II, Roosevelt maintained the reputation for reckless bravery he had gained in World War I. In his jeep “Rough Rider” he rode down an enemy cavalry patrol, shooting one man off his horse and scattering the rest. Among his soldiers, the betting was 10 to one against his lasting two weeks in combat, but he lived long enough to die in bed more than a year later.
Neither Allen nor Roosevelt was a member of the “West Point club.” Allen had flunked out of the Point but gotten his commission later. In 1940, Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall jumped Lt. Col. Allen over 900 senior officers and made him commander of the division that was first both in name and in prestige. In WorId War I, Allen, like Roosevelt, had been wounded leading troops and awarded medals for bravery. In one battle he was sent to an aid station for treatment. He ripped off the wound tag and returned to the front, only to be wounded again. In another battle a German bullet tore through his mouth, knocking out molars on both sides and leaving him with a permanent whistle in his voice when he became excited. Being advanced over so many other officers made Allen the object of jealousy; his maverick actions made him an easy target for charges of insubordination.
Seeing Allen and Roosevelt in action buoyed the infantrymen’s faith in the generals and in themselves. Allen told his officers, “A soldier doesn’t fight to save suffering humanity or any other nonsense. He fights to prove that his unit is the best in the Army and that he has as much guts as anyone else in the unit.” After initial setbacks in North Africa, the 1st Division fought two panzer divisions to a standstill, leading the famed Desert Fox, German General Erwin Rommel, to withdraw, admitting, “I was forced to the conclusion that the enemy had grown too strong for our attack to be maintained.”
Combat results were fine, but there were unfortunate noncombat results from the proud attitude Allen and Roosevelt engendered in the 1st Division. Not saluting officers, a practice used in combat to prevent the enemy from picking off the leaders, became the custom out of battle as well as in battle; rear-echelon soldiers like those in Oran who refused combat men admission to their clubs found themselves in fights they could not win. There were complaints from Oran and further repercussions from General Eisenhower’s May 1943 visit to the 1st Division command post.
The relationship between the commanders of the 1st Division and George Patton has been much discussed. In Patton: Ordeal and Triumph, Ladislas Farago projects himself into Patton’s mind to introduce Allen, Roosevelt, and the 1st Division in Sicily: “The cocky bastards! Patton did not like Allen…. The 1st Division had been a problem since back in Tunisia … a magnificent group of bold men, led flamboyantly by their iconoclastic commanders…. Allen was too independent and moody; Roosevelt had a bad case of arthritis and was drinking heavily.” Even so, Farago was forced to conclude, “But as leaders in combat they had no peers.”
Carlo D’Este, in Bitter Victory, a history of the battle for Sicily, discusses the firing over several pages. Attempting to lay the blame for the action and especially for the “unthinkable timing” that humiliated both generals, D’Este complains of a “plethora of theories.” He touches on the possible roles of the various general officers, from Eisenhower, who found the 1st Division undisciplined when out of combat, to the messenger Maj. Gen. John D. Lucas, whose comment on Allen was the patronizing, “The boy is tired.” D’Este, a careful historian, finds his plethora of sources confusing.
Writers cite remarks bandied about at headquarters as well as diaries and official reports. When Maj. Gen. Bedell “Beetle” Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, was told by another officer that Allen had made the division, he burst out: “Allen ruined the 1st Division. He thought it was enough to win battles. He didn’t realize the necessity of discipline when the troops are out of the line.”
The same argument was made against Ted Roosevelt, but the infantrymen saw no problem with either general. They thought that their job was to win battles, and that was what they were doing. Lucas, Eisenhower’s “eyes and ears,” blamed Roosevelt for “spoiling the troops.” He said that although the soldiers had been told that their division was “the best in the world, as far as real discipline is concerned they have become one of the worst.”
While the opinions of generals like Smith and Lucas may have carried some weight, they were, after all, only the views of staff officers, not of commanders. What Eisenhower thought, however, was critical. Eisenhower wrote his opinion of the meeting with Terry Allen three months before the actual “relief.” On his way to Allen’s command post, Ike noticed soldiers not observing the military courtesy of saluting his four-star staff car. About the meeting, Ike’s assistant, Captain Harry Butcher, wrote, “Allen had been out most of the night on his duties. Obviously he was very tired.”
Besides finding the division weak on discipline, Eisenhower found the division commander mumbling short answers, complaining of high casualties, citing World War I experience, and appearing altogether disconsolate and passive. Eisenhower was in no mood to either understand or forgive.
Omar Bradley, commander of the II Corps and in his first combat command, was Allen’s immediate superior. Particularly sensitive to matters of discipline and protocol, he wrote, “Terry’s own career as an army rebel had long ago disproved the maxim that discipline makes a good soldier. Having broken the mold himself he saw no need to apply it to his troops.” The same yardstick was applied to punish the assistant commander. “Roosevelt had to go with Allen for he, too, had sinned by loving the division too much.”
Eisenhower and Bradley aside, it was Patton’s longstanding rivalry with Terry Allen that fueled the final blowup. When both Patton and Allen had been promoted over the heads of hundreds of senior officers, he wrote Terry a gushing letter of congratulations. “We must be in for some serious fighting and we are the ones who can lead the way to hell…. You know I am tickled to death.” Perhaps, but he would have been twice as tickled if he alone had been favored.
More than any other general on either side, Patton rode high on waves of publicity. He wrote to his wife that the men regarded him as a god, and so, it seems, did the general himself.
Except for the two soldier-slapping incidents, the press also enforced Patton’s opinion.
Three keys to Patton’s actions at the end of July 1943 lie in the letter he wrote to Allen nearly three months before. A cover story on Patton in the April 12, 1943, issue of Time quoted the flamboyant general in detail and made statements that Terry Allen (among others) took as disparaging of the American troops. “The men were fighting bravely, but they could do no better than their training. If all the men under him had been as beautifully trained as the armored division, which he taught, there might have been a different story in the hills of El Guettar…. General Patton’s infantry were Americans and they were freshmen.”
The contrast between the armored division and the infantry divisions was particularly insulting and inaccurate. Of the four divisions under Patton in Tunisia, the armored division, as Patton himself later admitted, was the least effective, so bad that he replaced the commanding general.
Terry Allen, fiercely defensive of his infantrymen, wrote Patton a scorching letter.
Patton replied to “Dear Terry” with the following: “I should be somewhat hurt with you for writing me the letter … if I did not realize that you were very tired. After the amount of publicity that you personally have received, you should know that anyone can be quoted without ever having been seen; and if you were not tired, you would know very well that I have never at any time nor at any place criticized American troops for anything.”
The letter demonstrates Patton’s extraordinary inability to see himself in an unfavorable light. As to his never criticizing American troops under any conditions, in a high-pitched argument with Allen over soldiers’ uniforms, he had called the 1st Division soldiers “yellow bellies” and “sons of bitches.” He used the “sons of bitches” epithet again when demanding the 1st Division for the Sicily invasion. His worst treatment of men under him occurred in what became famous as the soldier-slapping incidents a week apart in August 1943. Both occasions occurred in hospitals; both times he smacked a soldier across the face twice and called him a “yellow coward.” The affairs were partially covered up for a time, mainly because Eisenhower soothed the three correspondents who investigated the situation and demanded that Patton be removed. He was removed for a short time and nearly sent home, but Ike decided he was too valuable to lose and ordered him to make amends by apologizing to the units of his command.
Patton, never adept at admitting he was wrong, found it hard to apologize without excusing his own conduct. His letter to Terry Allen was a good example; smothering the “apology” were three arrows pointing to Patton’s desire to rid himself of Allen. First, he complained of his own “hurt” feelings, surely a strange personal reaction between generals.
Second, and this became the accepted rationale, he made two allusions to Allen’s being “tired.”
Third, and perhaps most significant, he referred to “the amount of publicity” Allen was receiving. Patton, from his close reading of Time, saw in that magazine pictures of both Allen and Roosevelt and read that Allen was “the best known general of an infantry division” whose men “had distinguished themselves throughout.”
Apparently praise for the 1st Division and its generals detracted from rather than added to Patton’s personal glory. Among Army commanders he was a famous figure, and he could not help regarding Allen as a rival, going back as far as the 1920s. The jump promotions in tandem evidently damaged the relationship between the two proud and rambunctious generals. D’Este points out that Patton always seemed to overreact in Allen’s presence. The most telling episode occurred during the battle of El Guettar when Patton, visiting Allen and Roosevelt at their command post, found it surrounded by slit trenches against Luftwaffe attacks.
Patton to Allen: “Which one is yours?”
When Allen showed him, Patton went over and urinated in it. “There,” he said, “now try to use it.”
Flint Whitlock in The Fighting First describes what happened next: “Allen’s body guards audibly clicked the safeties on their Thompson submachine guns as a not-so-subtle hint…. Patton evidently realized that he had crossed the line and prudently departed the scene.” Ted Roosevelt had a related slit trench story. “At El Guettar I was in a slit trench with Terry Allen, only large enough to hold two. Patton came up. I got out and gave Patton my place. He took it.”
During the campaign Eisenhower recorded his opinion of Patton in his diary. “A shrewd soldier who believes in showmanship to such an extent that he is almost flamboyant. He talks too much and too quickly and sometimes creates a very bad impression. Moreover, I fear he is not always a good example to his subordinates.”
One bad example Ike might have noted was insubordination. When Eisenhower slated the unblooded 36th Division for the Sicily invasion, Patton came tearing in to headquarters demanding the 1st Division instead. “I want those sons of bitches. I won’t go without them.” Ike refused. Patton went over his head to General Marshall and got his way. Marshall overruled Eisenhower.
The Army chain of command is like any other human chain. To avoid being regarded as a weak link, a general must show himself making decisions, being strong even if being wrong. Eisenhower and Bradley both claimed credit for sacking the Army’s two fighting generals. Ike said that as a result of the early May meeting he made the decision that “Allen was too tired to continue.” If that were so in May, why was Allen still able to lead the 1st Division victoriously through the Sicily campaign in July and August? When it came to the actual firing, Eisenhower’s role was merely to agree to the decision of a subordinate.
Eisenhower had high regard for Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley. He wrote, “This officer is the best-rounded, well-balanced senior officer that we have in the service. His judgments are always sound.” Ike, who did not like either Allen or Roosevelt, apparently disregarded the grim puritanical streak in “Brad,” which led him to despise these two generals for their drinking habits.
Bradley also mishandled facts. His crediting Ike rather than Marshall and the Joint Chiefs of Staff with the decision to assign the 1st Division to Patton’s Sicily attack was harmless enough, but his mythical description of the firings of Allen and Roosevelt shows a more than casual disregard for the truth. “I relieved both Allen and Roosevelt…. This controversial action was mine and mine alone. Patton merely concurred.”
Even more surprising, Bradley “remembers” an event that never occurred. He wrote in his autobiographical A Soldier’s Story that he called both Allen and Roosevelt to his command post in Nicosia and “personally told them that they were relieved.” This book-like confession—appearing six years after the war —flatly contradicts Patton’s diary entry written the very night of the firing.
Even more stunning than the firing of Allen and Roosevelt was the cruel, casual, and untimely way it was handled. Despite Bradley’s story, the two generals received no warning that the axe was about to fall. While Terry Allen was in one room giving subordinates instructions for an attack, the mail bag from the II Corps came into another room. In the bag the fateful dispatch was discovered by shocked staff officers. Since the dispatch would be seen simultaneously in other headquarters, the loyal officers decided that Allen should be told immediately. One officer took the paper in and wordlessly handed it to the general. Allen looked at it, nodded, said a few words in undertone, and then continued with his briefing with tears in his eyes.
About the generals fighting in Sicily, Patton had written to Eisenhower on July 24, 1943, “I have nothing but praise for all of the General Officers concerned.” Strangely, six days later he pulled the 45th Division out of the line because he thought its commander, General Drew Middleton, “looked tired.” And his diary entry on the seventh day revealed, “I got Ike’s permission to relieve both Allen and Roosevelt…. I telegraphed Allen’s and Roosevelt’s relief to Bradley and sent him a personal note suggesting that he postpone it until the 1st Division is relieved.”
Despite the humiliation of being fired during battle, both generals came back strong the following year. Terry Allen trained a brand new infantry division, the 104th “Timberwolves,” took them to Europe, and led them, as a Patton biographer admitted, “with brilliance and distinction.” In Eisenhower’s Lieutenants Russelll Weighley wrote, “The 104th Division had been organized and trained by one of the first American heroes of the war in Africa, Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen…. There had never been any question about his competence as a trainer, organizer, and inspirational battle captain, and the l04th immediately showed it had been well brought up.”
For his heroic actions on Utah Beach, Ted Roosevelt, assistant commander of the 4th Infantry Division, the oldest man and the highest ranking officer on the beach, received the Medal of Honor. Omar Bradley credited him with performing that day the bravest action in the war. Ironically, Ted Roosevelt died in bed of a heart attack five weeks later. Even more ironic was the fact that Eisenhower had on his desk ready to sign Roosevelt’s promotion to command of the 90th Infantry Division.
Thus, despite being booted from command by Patton with the concurrence of Bradley and Eisenhower, both generals returned to demonstrate with grace and dignity their continued ability to lead troops in combat.
Author Walter Holden is a first-time contributor and veteran of World War II. He resides in Franklin, New Hampshire.