General Jacob Devers: World War II's Forgotten Four Star

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Of the leaders of the American Army in World War II, Jacob Devers is undoubtedly the "forgotten four star." Plucked from relative obscurity in the Canal Zone, Devers was one of four generals selected by General of the Army George Marshall in 1941 to assist him in preparing the Army for war. He quickly became known in Army circles for his "can do" attitude and remarkable ability to cut through red tape. Among other duties, he was instrumental in transforming Ft. Bragg, then a small Army post, into a major training facility. As head of the armored force, Devers contributed to the development of a faster, more heavily armored tank, equipped with a higher velocity gun that could stand up to the more powerful German tanks, and helped to turn American armor into an effective fighting force. In spring 1943, Devers replaced Dwight Eisenhower as commander of the European Theater of Operations, then was given command of the 6th Army Group that invaded the south of France and fought its way through France and Germany to the Austrian border. In the European campaign to defeat Hitler, Eisenhower had three subordinate army group commanders-British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, Omar S. Bradley, and Jacob Devers. The first two are well-known-here the third receives the attention he properly deserves.

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1 Early Years

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Born on september 8, 1887, in the pennsylvania dutch town of York, Jacob Loucks Devers was the oldest of four children born to the very upright couple of Philip and Ella Kate Loucks. Philip Devers was a sturdy, good-natured Irishman, 5' 10" and 220 pounds or so, with a thick crop of curly hair, olive complexion, and a moustache. Oddly, the American who was to free Alsace descended on Ella Kate’s side from stock that hailed from Strasbourg. A heavyset semi-invalid, she needed domestic help to raise her three sons and a daughter. Altogether they were a gregarious and friendly family – a touch of the Irish in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Father worked his way up to become a highly skilled watchmaker and partner in the well-regarded jewelry store, Stevens and Devers. “My father had to put those damned watches together – he had to do everything right or it didn’t work. That impressed me,” his son later commented.1 Afterward, Philip became the only one in York who could repair the new “high tech” adding machines. As the junior partner in the jewelry business, he often had to work late hours. He was a Democrat active in civic affairs and a Thirty-Second Degree Mason. A boyhood friend remembered him as “one of the great fathers I knew. He was a real companion to the boys.”2 Jacob’s sister remembered him as “a man’s man”: “He had a horse and fancy pigeons which he trained. Father would come home from work for meals on the trolley car. For the boys he made the first skis in the area. He had a great deal of fun in him. Our childhood was happy and carefree.”3 The children remembered spending a lot of time with their father. He helped them to build a coaster that the boys endlessly took down hills. In warm weather, they might all go to the Susquehanna River and picnic. Honesty, integrity, dependability, and hard work were family trademarks.

 

2 The Interwar Years

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In may 1919, while most soldiers were returning home, Devers was one of the few American officers sent to France to attend the French artillery school at Treves. Jake never tried to use his influence to get assignments but was happy with this one. When he went to France, he retained the rank of colonel, thereby outranking many officers who had outranked him before the war, causing a great deal of embarrassment.

The French conducted staff rides of former battlefields to point out practical lessons of field artillery employment, an approach Devers liked. The British officers didn’t impress him, but he got to know several French officers who were experts at their profession. Little did he know how much this background would help him during the world war that was to come. Unfortunately, the tour was unaccompanied, so Georgie and Frances stayed home with Georgie’s parents while her husband was abroad. Jake left France with a very favorable impression of the French Army.1 After completing the French school, Jake served shortly with the Army of Occupation in Germany, returning to the United States in August.

 

3 Marshall Recognizes Devers

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One of franklin roosevelt’s most perspicacious personnel decisions was making General George C. Marshall the army chief of staff. In recognition of his integrity and overpowering command presence, Winston Churchill dubbed him “The Noblest Roman.” His official biographer, Forrest Pogue called him, “distant, austere, formal and humorless. He never did talk a great deal.” Over his career, Marshall earned a reputation of being competent, severely fair, and impeccably honest. An early riser, he often said that no one ever had a good idea after 1 PM. He was taciturn to a fault and never had time for small talk. No one, save his old friend “Vinegar” Joe Stillwell, called him George. He did not like excessive drink, infidelity, or off-color humor. Among the army’s senior ranks of officers, he was one of the most airpower minded. Early on, he selected Harold “Hap” Arnold to lead the army air forces and resolutely backed him throughout the war. Marshall had no time for stupid or unprepared people. Before one went into his office, that person needed to know exactly what he wanted from the chief of staff and have a concise and well-laid-out supporting argument. Still, “if you had a good reason, Marshall would shift,” recalled Devers.1

 

4 Chief of Armored Force

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It was about noon, and devers was in his office when the phone rang. It was General Marshall:

Is anybody listening on this phone?

Well, if they were they are off, General Marshall.

I want you to get into your plane this afternoon and fly to Fort Knox, Kentucky. [General Adna R.] Chaffee is dying, and I don’t want to announce it right now, but I am going to put you in command of the Armored Force. There is something wrong down there [at Armored Force]. I want to know about. I want you to go down to Fort Knox and find out what the trouble is and spend as much time as you want and then fly to Washington and tell me what the trouble is. In the meantime, we will get your status cleaned up and decide what we have got to do.1

“As I sat back in my chair to catch my breath, after hanging up the telephone,” recalled Devers in retirement, “the first thought that occurred to me was General Van Voorhis is going to get a big laugh out of this.”2 Van Voorhis had been Jake’s commanding officer in Panama, and had earlier been instrumental in shepherding mechanized cavalry into reality in the early 1930s. On sultry afternoons back in the canal zone, he and Devers had sometimes talked about mechanized forces. Jake was somewhat ambivalent. Initially, Devers viewed the tank as a method of getting a large-caliber gun into position to fire directly on the enemy. That did not embody the concept of slashing, high-speed warfare. What little he saw of interwar tanks appeared “clumsy” to him.

 

5 The Debate over Doctrine

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In the beginning, george s. patton proved to be a large problem. He had a lot of ideas, some good, some very unbalanced. Patton stressed mobility and tended to use the light tank as a horse. Despite the need demonstrated on European battlefields for more armor protection and heavier guns, he remained wedded to the light 15-ton cavalry tank. Patton handled light tanks as cavalry.1 A committed cavalryman as late as 1933, he wrote in the Cavalry Journal, “Machines will always be preceded by horsemen.” Patton, then subordinate to Devers as commander of the 2nd Armored Division (AD), had enjoyed a long association with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, which he exploited to challenge Devers’s mechanized warfare expertise and hence his authority to command. Devers could not tolerate the situation if Patton became de facto the man in charge. Patton, who felt he was the armor expert, was feeding Stimson notes via Undersecretary John McCloy, questioning what Devers knew about armor.

 

6 Commander, ETO

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Early in 1942, major general james chaney was sent to the United Kingdom to take command of the American army in Europe. Yes, there was a war into which America had just been thrust. But old habits die hard. Chaney maintained a pace as if it was peacetime.

In June 1942, to shift into high gear, George Marshall dispatched his most rapidly rising star, Dwight Eisenhower, to London. For the past year, he had performed well as Marshall’s war plans officer. The two men found they had parallel views on how to conduct the war, and their judgments on a range of issues were compatible. Eisenhower was destined for even more lofty heights. Soon he would be selected to lead the invasion of North Africa.

Marshall selected another rising star, Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews, to fill the soon-to-be-vacated position of American army leader in Europe. He was the first army aviator to become assistant chief of staff for plans. The official history of the period records that his death in a plane crash “ended a career of large accomplishment and larger promise.”1

 

7 Deputy Supreme Commander, MTO

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As jacob devers replaced dwight eisenhower for command of the United Kingdom in November 1942, Eisenhower replaced Devers in 1943. While Eisenhower returned to Washington to meet with George Marshall and Franklin Roosevelt, and to spend a little time with his wife, Devers left Europe for North Africa. There was no in-person hand-off. In preparation for his trip to Washington, Eisenhower had asked Devers’s opinions about ETO organization. Just before Christmas, Jake wrote in his diary that he and Ira Eaker had felt deflated by the reassignment from the big leagues of ETO to what was now the MTO sideshow. The decisions at Casablanca had much reduced the importance of the Mediterranean. Devers’s longtime aide Colonel Eugene Harrison thought Devers was shunted aside.1 Jake was likely miffed. But he stepped off the airplane running onto the shores of the Mediterranean. According to the man who would be his chief plans officer for the next year and a half, “Devers was supposed to be a fireball.”2

 

8 The French and a Southern Front

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American military historians often dismiss french actions and participation during the campaign in Western Europe. They praise the élan shown by the men of the French 2nd Armored Division (Deuxième Division Blindée) and its very capable leader, General Jacques-Philippe Leclerc, but echo the frustration of American commanders that Leclerc ignored American orders and struck out for Paris on his own. De Gaulle’s intransigence on a range of issues frustrated many Americans from Roosevelt on down. For the Americans, the war’s objective was straightforward: crush the Wehrmacht and eliminate Nazism as rapidly as possible, with minimum loss of friendly and civilian life. For the most part, the British agreed. Churchill, however, always had his eye on the shape of the postwar world and the map that reflected it. For the French, the issues were far more complicated. Their rapid collapse before the Nazi assault in 1940 and subsequent partial complicity in Nazi crimes from 1940–1944 left a deep stain on the fabric of an ancient culture. As First French Army Commander General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny often said, “French honor can be redeemed only by the spilling of French blood…. French command could not leave out the effect of our national pride.”1 The French had more complex war aims than simply destroying Nazism by the most efficacious means available.

 

9 Dragooned

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Winston churchill said that the americans dragooned him into the landings in southern France, hence the selection of that code name. Jacob Devers certainly had not been. British Field Marshal Henry “Jumbo” Wilson had set things up with the notion that Devers would command the invasion of southern France in August 1944. On 1 July, Wilson cabled George Marshall, “We will need AG [army group] and I want Devers to be commander.” Marshall floated the idea of Devers’s becoming the third ETO army group commander among the players – Bernard Montgomery commanded the 21st Army Group in the north; Omar Bradley led the 12th Army Group in the center. Dwight Eisenhower, however, was unpleasantly surprised when he learned that Marshall was considering Devers.1 According to historian Forrest Pogue, Eisenhower recognized that Marshall wanted Devers. He had heard from General Carl Spaatz, commander of American strategic air forces in Europe, that Marshall was intent on placing Devers at the head of the 6th Army Group.2

 

10 Up the Rhône Valley

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Refugees were on the move all across france, trying to return home. Jacob Devers was especially considerate of the Poles. In Italy, Poles had fought bravely and hard in an attempt to move the Allies up the Italian boot. “I was close to the Poles. So I made a deal to turn the Polish refugees over to the British, who were anxious to get them back to help the Polish corps in Italy.” But the French didn’t want to do it. Many prisoners in German uniforms readily volunteered to join the Polish corps. Devers agreed to ship them south in empty supply trucks and then send them back on empty ships already heading to Italy. “We sent back thousands that way.”1 In recognition, the Polish government decorated Devers.

Before the invasion, planners envisioned creating a small mechanized taskforce to exploit inland from the beachhead. Taskforce Butler (TF Butler) was big enough to knock over the usual rearguard forces but was nowhere near large enough to go hunting a panzer division. The vaunted “Ghost Division” lay out there somewhere, doing quite a job of covering the German withdrawal. Devers was anxious to let TF Butler loose. Lucian Truscott, ever the aggressive cavalryman looking for a weakness to exploit, was chomping at the bit. “Germans were retreating so fast, we had trouble keeping up with them,” recalled General Eugene Harrison.2 Ultra decrypts demonstrated that the Nineteenth Army was heading north under orders, and that the Nazis would not come across the Italian border in force and fall on the flank of the Seventh Army.3 This allowed Sandy Patch to send Fred Butler’s small force on a 100-mile mission. While he didn’t make a show of appearing in the frontlines, Patch constantly moved around among his commanders and kept in close touch with critical points throughout his command. This is exactly the behavior Devers liked to see, so he left his gifted subordinate alone to run his own show. Truscott was made aware of “secret intelligence” regarding the whereabouts of the 11th Panzer Division (PzD). Nonplussed, that old cavalryman needed only permission to start the race. Truscott unleashed TF Butler on 20 August 1944, far earlier than anticipated in the initial plan due to the German “bug out.” From Devers on down, everyone agreed that the route least likely to be blocked was not Route 7 through the Rhône Valley but via the old Napoleon Road (the one the emperor had taken when he returned from Elba) through the mountains to Grenoble then Lyons.

 

11 An End to Champagne

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On 3 september 1944, jacob devers and henry “jumbo” Wilson, still the leadership of MTO, traveled to Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters to go over his overarching intentions for the order he would issue the next day. Much of the meeting revolved around logistics. The northern two groups were starved for supplies. George Patton’s Third Army was grounded for lack of them. Eisenhower wanted tonnage transshipped up the Rhône Valley to supply them, which couldn’t be done until the Third and Seventh Armies welded a firm connection.

About the same time, Eisenhower met with his current subordinates to give strategic guidance. The supreme commander was under intense pressure. Both of the army groups that stemmed from Normandy were running out of supplies, and their commanders, Bernard Montgomery and Omar Bradley, were screaming for more. Both were in the process of derailing Eisenhower’s carefully set plans. Despite his explicit instructions to the contrary, Montgomery was circumventing the capture of the great port of Antwerp in an effort to tackle the Rhine. Bradley evaded Eisenhower’s carefully laid out verbal instruction to concentrate the First Army in a strike through the Aachen Gap, which is north of that city, and instead splattered V Corps all over the Ardennes. Dealing with Devers and his supernumerary army group was almost an afterthought.

 

12 Into the Cold Vosges

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The 6th army group commander was disappointed that Dwight Eisenhower did not give his formation a larger role in the upcoming late September offensive.1 Jacob Devers was anxious to stage a powerful offensive as soon as possible.2 He applied creative thought to the mission assigned to him. Devers recognized the sterility of attacking through Belfort. Hermann Balck and his staff had come to the same conclusion. Devers also recognized that he had a much better shot at obtaining another corps, or even all of the Third Army, if he initially moved the Seventh Army up the west side of the Vosges. While he did not express it openly, Devers wanted to lead the theater’s secondary attack while Omar Bradley concentrated on the theater’s primary attack north of the Ardennes.

Devers produced a nonconventional campaign plan. Instead of sending his main effort into the Belfort Gap, he planned movement up the west side of the Vosges to the Saverne Gap. There he would create a strong single envelopment with the Seventh Army through the Saverne Gap to Strasbourg. Moving the Seventh Army this way also kept it close to George Patton. This facilitated a change in mission that could send it through the Lorraine Gateway at the southern rim of the Saar. The French First Army, in turn, would threaten the Belfort Gap. Germans remaining on the west bank of the upper Rhine would be pocketed by these two forces. Meanwhile, the primary mission of the First French Army was actually to regenerate itself. As an army-level formation, this unit had little offensive capability until this task was complete. Right from the beginning, the 6th Army Group Letter of Instruction No. 1 laid out the objectives that would govern movement until the 24th of November. Paragraph 2a directs the Seventh Army to seize Lunéville and Strasbourg, and then cross the Rhine. No Allied source can accuse Devers of concealing the direction of his attack from SHAEF.3 The letter of instruction tasked the First French Army with attacking from Belfort through Mulhouse to Colmar. Devers wanted to catch as much of the Nineteenth Army as possible. A brilliant French attack up along the flat land near the river might slam against the Seventh Army in Strasbourg like a hammer against an anvil. But the Seventh Army was looking north and east of the Rhine, not south toward the French First Army. Devers’s diary entry for 8 October 1944 reveals an interesting facet of his state of mind: “Also I learned that I will have to give more definite instructions to the two armies in order that their attacks bring the greatest good to the common cause. At the moment there seems to be some misunderstanding, which I will straighten out.”

 

13 Cross the Rhine?

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Dwight eisenhower was not impressed by the results that the 6th Army Group posted in October 1944. From 15 August to the end of September, the Seventh Army had advanced 400 miles, from St. Tropez to Rambervillers. Total advance for October and early November amounted to only 15 miles.1 Operation Dogface, the attack into the Vosges toward Saint-Dié, was a clever tactical move. At the operational level, as far as SHAEF was concerned, it was an attack in the wrong direction, but that really didn’t matter. Eisenhower wanted the Seventh Army to advance west of the Vosges from Sarrebourg north toward the Siegfried Line in close support of George Patton’s attack. Thus, it is a wonder that SHAEF approved Dogface, an attack east into the Vosges Mountains. Apparently Eisenhower wrote it off as a tactical move designed to anchor the Seventh Army’s right flank in the Vosges and tie down some Germans. Jacob Devers and Sandy Patch had done little to support Patton’s efforts in Lorraine since clearing the Parroy Forest on the Third Army’s southern flank near Baccarat. Fixated on the Rhine, Devers did not fully recognize the gap between his vision and SHAEF’s limited approval. The official history states that Eisenhower doubted that Devers’s command could make any major contribution to the Allied advance in November.2 This frame of mind is important in understanding Devers’s motivation in several significant, subsequent decisions.

 

14 Throw Down at Vittel and Its Aftermath

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George marshall’s counterpart, chief of the british Imperial Staff Sir Alan Brooke, was almost beside himself. He felt that Eisenhower had splattered scarce combat resources up and down the line without concentrating sufficient combat power to win on the decisive front north of the Ardennes. Brooke confided in Bernard Montgomery, “You have always told me, and I have agreed with you, that Ike was no commander, that he had no strategic vision, was incapable of making a plan or of running operations when started.”1 The two British field marshals communicated almost every night. Since late August, Montgomery had been grinding on Eisenhower to shift the First and maybe the Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s army group and place the British marshal in sole control of a single “full-blooded thrust,” while everyone else stood down so support could be concentrated.

Marshall and Brooke almost never agreed on anything. But the pressure coming from the British, and the lack of any real results since early September, set Eisenhower’s teeth on edge. In turn, his list of perceived shortfalls committed by Jacob Devers was long. In his estimation, Devers had shot wide of the mark several times. Neither Eisenhower nor his chief of staff, “Beetle” Smith, thought Devers had done a decent job since assuming command of the 6th Army Group. Eisenhower had told Devers to stay west of the Vosges. Now he was about to attempt a Rhine crossing on the east side, and he hadn’t told his boss.

 

15 Nordwind Strikes Devers

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On 19 december 1944, senior commanders gathered in Verdun to attend Dwight Eisenhower’s emergency conference to react to the German attack in the Ardennes, the clash known as the Battle of the Bulge.

“Jake, how soon can you take over Patton’s front?” Eisenhower asked.

“What with?” Jacob Devers responded.

“With what you have.” “The whole front?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” Devers replied, “It isn’t a question of how soon I can take over his front; it is a question of how soon Patton can get out of there so I can get in. His front is a quagmire.”

Eisenhower turned to George Patton. “How soon can you do it?”

“Forty-eight hours,” responded the confident Third Army commander.1

By 20 December, Devers had written confirmation of the orders to his army group to reorganize and move into the Third Army area. Before the Verdun meeting, Devers had agreed to take over part of the front as requested by Patton. The 6th Army Group had already begun northward movement of the 12th Armored Division (AD). The Seventh Army did a good job of shuffling divisions north to cover 30 miles of ground vacated by XII and XX Corps. The 103rd Infantry Division (ID) moved 100 miles back across the Vosges and occupied some of the vacated ground. Devers exhorted, “We shall pursue our new mission with all our energy.” Later he said, “Seventh Army did a terrific job. We had to sideswipe one division over the front.”2 He added, “The means are meager and the front long…. It was really a hazardous job, but we did it.”3

 

16 The Colmar Pocket Finally Collapses

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In a series of communications to george marshall and his senior commanders from 10 to 20 January 1945, Dwight Eisenhower summarized the recent German attacks and laid out his specific plans for the final phases of the war in Europe.1 He broke the final operation into three phases: destroying German forces west of the Rhine, crossing the Rhine with a concentration in the North, and a final offensive to the East through central Germany. Above all, the German armed forces had to be crippled so that the Nazi monster, regardless of its will, would be unable to resist the Allies as they brought about the end of Hitler’s rule. Eisenhower intended to do this by assembling “the greatest possible eventual concentration in the north.”2 Bernard Montgomery would command the main effort north of the Ruhr with Omar Bradley prosecuting a secondary effort south of the Ruhr but north of the Ardennes. With the elimination of the Bulge at the beginning of February, Eisenhower had formed a general reserve of about twenty divisions with which to finish the Wehrmacht. In order to achieve these concentrations, he wanted a defendable line right up against the Rhine everywhere to the south.

 

17 Undertone to Austria

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In mid-january 1945, dwight eisenhower changed the focus of his final drive. Instead of Berlin, which he said had no military value and in any case was far closer to Soviet forces, the SHAEF commander shifted his gaze southward to Leipzig and the remaining Nazi forces in southern Germany. As part of this adjustment, the long-held notion that the Allies would concentrate not only north of the Ardennes but north of the Ruhr relaxed. Given the preference of both Eisenhower and his staff for a two-fisted effort, Eisenhower kept Bernard Montgomery and three armies advancing north of the Ruhr with Berlin as a possible terminus, but tasked Omar Bradley with pushing the Third Army south of the Ruhr but north of the Moselle, focused on Bonn with Leipzig as a possible final destination. The First Army would advance just north of that industrial area, completing its encirclement where a major portion of the German Army could be trapped and destroyed.

The British immediately protested and requested the combined chiefs of staff review his decision. A number of high-level communications were exchanged, but Eisenhower’s message to George Marshall on 15 January best summarizes the situation.1 Eisenhower reiterated his commitment to focus the main effort north of the Ruhr with an attack commanded by Montgomery and consisting of First Canadian, Second British, and Ninth U.S. Armies. The secondary attack moved north from George Patton’s Lorraine campaign to a thrust under Bradley south of the Ruhr to Bonn. South of the Moselle would be strictly defensive along the easily held Rhine. “I required Devers’s army group, for the first two acts, to remain essentially on the defensive,” wrote Eisenhower after the war.2 He also cabled Marshall that he knew Jacob Devers would have trouble with Charles de Gaulle about the proper objective for the French Army. French divisions “had a low combat value,” and his biggest worry was that “Devers will be caught out of position and some of his troops manhandled.”3 This was yet another indirect slap at Devers’s attempt to cross the Rhine at Rastatt before Eisenhower was ready for that as a follow-up attack.

 

18 Postwar

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In a letter to george marshall in february 1945, dwight Eisenhower rated his top thirty-eight officers. This was serious business in which a commander was expected to be brutally honest. As might be expected, Eisenhower rated Omar Bradley first, tied with Carl Spaatz, the air commander. Walter Bedell “Beetle” Smith was third, George Patton was fourth, Mark Clark fourteenth. Jake Devers was twenty-fourth. Every army commander in Europe and six corps commanders came in ahead of him. Eisenhower placed Sandy Patch, Lucian Truscott, and Alan Brooke above Devers. Damning with faint praise is something of an understatement. Devers was the only ranking officer that was asterisked. Eisenhower wrote, “The proper position of this officer is not yet fully determined in my own mind. The overall results he and his organization produce are generally good, sometimes outstanding. But he has not, so far, produced among the seniors at the American organization here that feeling of trust and confidence that is so necessary to continued success.”1

 

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