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The Tragic Death of General Lesley J. McNair During Operation Cobra


The Tragic Death of General Lesley J. McNair During Operation Cobra

One of Operation Cobra’s most costly casualties came from friendly fire.

One of Operation Cobra’s most costly casualties, General Lesley J. McNair, came from friendly fire.

by Brian Todd Carey

As Allied bombs rained down from B-17s and B-24s on their own men to open Operation Cobra, a three-star general was visiting the front lines: Commander of Army Ground Forces Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair. He would gain the dubious distinction of being the highest ranking American soldier killed in combat in World War II.

McNair had a long and distinguished career in the Army. In World War I, he served on the staff of the U.S. 1st Division and later in General Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force. In the interwar years he commanded the Command and General Staff School. At the outbreak of World War II he commanded the Army Ground Forces, responsible for training the American Army. He established a new and rigorous system under which units experienced conditions close to actual combat. McNair was responsible for the entire cycle: activation, training and evaluation of all new divisions.

One of Operation Cobra’s most costly casualties came from friendly fire.

As Allied forces began building up in England for the invasion of Europe, McNair was considered for army group command, but he had one setback that was kept secret throughout the war: Leslie McNair was deaf. Instead, he took over command of the fictitious First Army Group, a fake army that Lt. Gen. George S. Patton had been commanding to make the Germans think Allied forces in Normandy were only a diversion to a larger invasion in Pas-de-Calais.

McNair’s Body was Hurled 80 Feet in the Air

To increase the deception, and to see if his training methods were effective, McNair visited the front, in hopes of being reported on the continent by the German high command. He was visiting the troops of the 30th Infantry Division when the Allies started dropping bombs on the German front. But soon the bombs began falling short and exploding within the American lines. McNair’s body was hurled 80 feet in the air from a slit trench. Medics would not have been able to identify him were it not for the three stars they found on one shoulder.

Although only one of a hundred Americans killed in the attack, McNair was given a funeral in accordance with his rank. The only attendees, however, were Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, the First Army commander, Lt. Gen. Courtney Hodges, who would soon take over First Army, Maj. Gen. Elwood Quesada, IX Tactical Air commander, Maj. Gen. Ralph Royce, XII Tactical Air commander, McNair’s aide-de-camp and Patton. No band played and no shots were fired in salute. His death was kept secret to fool the Germans. Patton recorded in his diary that night a simple epitaph: “He was a great friend.”

Originally Published October 29, 2015

Add Your Comments


  1. Chris
    Posted November 10, 2015 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    McNair was not killed “in combat,” he was killed by friendly fire. Gen. Simon B. Buckner, Jr. was the highest ranking American killed in combat during WWII.

    • Lisa J McNair
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

      I am not aware of this fake army mentioned in the article above. I am surprised to see this and am not sure who to contact, but I am curious. I understand that strategy and secrecy and need to fool the enemy, but I would be certain I should have known about this tactic. Interesting. Hopefully, Mark T Calhoun’s book about Gen McNair will shed some light on this. Check it out! Finally a book about one of the finest Generals in history. Thank you!

  2. Mat Drake
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    BS !!!!! Killed by friendly fire is combat, and a 500 pound bomb is combat. How much combat have you seen

  3. Mark
    Posted March 5, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I think that once you put on your country’s uniform and go forward into a combat area it really should not matter wether you were killed by friendly or emeny fire. You still went forward to do your duty

  4. Posted May 8, 2017 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    Yes, Gen McNair was killed by friendly fire while observing on the front lines during Operation Cobra..Once on the battlefield, he was able to assess the conditions facing the men with more accuracy and a clearer picture.The following day, Gen McNair headed once again for the front lines. He was determined and despite the many pleas begging and urging him not to put himself in danger again. He would hear none of it. He learned earlier that morning how much his presence up front meant to the men, how much it boosted their morale.That was all he needed to know That’s what was driving him to be there, the boys he trained.They needed him. 100 or so soldiers were included in that hit. It’s important to mention them as well. There is a picture I have seen just this last year, I believe. It’s the very last pic of Gen McNair in the trench with the others, minutes before our own accidentally dropped a bomb short of it’s intended target. The enormous amount of dust and sand that lingered in the air, was a result of the force from the bombs blast. This wasn’t anticipated and consequently caused airmen above to misjudge their landings simply because they couldn’t see their targets.

    boosted the soldiers In addition to the comments above about my Great Grandfather, you’re right, friendly fire is combat. He was nearly killed the year before in Tunisia, Africa, as he was on the front lines beside his men. His position was always the same. He did not expect his men to not on being present on the field, up front, alongside the men he trained. He was firm in that a man to go where he would not fo.said he would go wherever his men went as he was not a desk man. I believe he needed to see the conditions the soldiers soldiers up close and personal, rather than hearing about the conditions on the field.

    • Lisa J McNair
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      My apologies for the typos up above! I can’t find out how to remedy the situation

      Also, a comment. I understood my Great Grandfather to be hard of hearing, perhaps because he was 61 on the field and after 41 yrs of service, its par for the course. But he was not deaf as in both ears. Thank you. Gen McNair was an incredible contributor to the Victory of WWII. He didn’t live to see this.
      Tragically, as with millions of stories that touch the heart, his only child, a Son, Lt Col Douglas C McNair was killed in Guam 12 days after his Father. My Great Grandmother lost her Husband. Then- less than 2 weeks time, received news that her boy was killed. His daughter, my Mother, was 9 months old. I am the last direct decedent, a female, as is my daughter. There were no boys after Douglas. Thank you for my indulgence.

      • Gladys seaward
        Posted May 27, 2019 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

        My father and mother were married in dc in 1930 . Doug McNair was best man according to the story passed to me by my father Hal Jordan.,class of 1927 West Point.
        Seemed like this Memorial Day brought me the impulse to use google to find out more about the McNair family and how your great grandmother was able to handle those 2 unbearable tragedies,

  5. Gerald Davis
    Posted May 22, 2017 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    The bomb drop was General Bradley’s fault. he instructed the bombers to approach over the beach and they should have approached parole to the beach. 150 GIs were killed.

  6. Catherine Wright-Win
    Posted June 8, 2019 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    My father’s cousin Cecil Cope Miller was killed during the bombing. He was from South East Missouri. I had heard that they sat out colored smoke bombs to let the aircraft know where the Germans were located and before they got there the wind had changed direction and went back over the troops. 75 years ago.

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