Lesley James McNair, 1883-1944

Lesley James McNair (1883-1944) was largely responsible for creating and training the US army that fought in Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War, but is perhaps best known for being the highest ranked US general to be killed in action during the war.

McNair was born in Minnesota in 1883. He graduated from West Point in 1904 and was commissioned into the artillery. Before the outbreak of the First World War he served in the Ordnance Corps, and visited France to study their advanced artillery techniques, based on the rapid firing ‘75s’.

In 1914 McNair took part in the occupation of Vera Cruz, part of a controversial American intervention in the ongoing Mexican revolution. In 1916 he took part in the ‘Punitive Expedition’ an attempt to capture Pancho Villa in the aftermath of his raid into New Mexico.

In 1918 McNair went to France to serve with the 1st Division of the American Expeditionary Force. During the war he gained a reputation as an effective artillery commander, working on methods for effective infantry-artillery cooperation, something that often broke down after the start of most First World War battles. He also worked with George Marshall, often a key to having a high powered career during the Second World War. As a reward for his services he was given a temporary promotion to brigadier-general, making him the youngest general officer in the AEF.

After the war he reverted to his normal rank of Major. He was a very influential figure in the development of the US army between the wars, teaching at the General Service School, studying at the Air War College and commanding the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. From April 1939-July 1940 he was given the task of reforming the Command and General Staff College.

From 1940-42 he served as chief of staff of the Army General Headquarters in Washington. During this period he played a major role in the development of American military equipment, and in particular the tank. Unfortunately he misjudged the future of armoured warfare, seeing the fully armoured tank as an exploitation weapon, designed to take advantage of any gap in the enemy lines. In his view any battle between opposing tanks was a misuse of the weapon. The initial breakthrough was still to be achieved by the infantry and artillery. This rather ignored the experience of the fighting in 1918, where the tank played an important part in the combined arms assaults that broke the German lines. The result of McNair’s influence was the US army’s reliance on medium tanks, ending with the M4 Sherman. Any attempt to develop heavy tanks that might have been able to cope with the higher quality German tanks was resisted.

In 1940 McNair saw his views as being supported by the German victories in Europe, where their fast moving armoured columns spread out behind enemy lines, causing massive disruption. He believed that the correct answer was the tank destroyer, heavily armed, mobile but thinly armoured vehicles, that could rush to the scene of a breakthrough, take up a defensive position, and destroy the attacking enemy tanks without coming under attack themselves. This was an entirely logical reaction to the events of 1940, but the problem was that American armour was designed to fight the battles of 1940, not of 1944-45.

By the time the US army entered combat against the Germans, German doctrine had developed, so their tanks were no longer concentrated in massive armoured columns, but instead were much more integrated into the entire front line. The Germans were also mainly on the defensive, so there were very few occasions where the tank destroyers were used in their original role. Instead the Americans found themselves attacking well dug in German tanks, supported by infantry. The Sherman lacked the firepower and armour to take them on equally and had to rely on superior numbers. The tank destroyers often had the firepower, but were even more vulnerable than the Sherman when attacking, while their open turrets left their crews dangerously exposed to enemy infantry weapons. Luckily the Americans were able to produce both the Sherman and the tank destroyers in vast numbers, overwhelming the smaller number of German armoured vehicles, although at highest cost than would have been the case if suitable heavy tanks had been available.

In March 1942 McNair was promoted to lieutenant-general, and made commander of the Army Ground Forces. This was the organisation responsible for training the rapidly expanding US Army, and McNair was ideally suited to the role. At its peak the training system under his command contained 1.5 million men! McNair was also responsible for implementing the reorganisation of the US Infantry Division from the ‘square’ formation with four major combat elements to the ‘triangular’ formation with three commands. This turned out to be a much more flexible system, allowing the use of two units in the front and one in reserve. McNair also helped to make the infantry divisions much more mobile. In this role McNair played a crucial role in the creation of the massive wartime American army.

McNair was also determined to visit the front as often as possible. In 1943 he received a shrapnel wound while close to the front in Tunisia. Despite his many achievements at the Army Ground Forces, McNair wanted a combat command. In June 1944 Marshall finally gave in. His first command was the largely fictional First United States Army Group in Britain, part of the successful deception operations that surrounded Operation Overlord. FUSAG had been commanded by General Patton, and was meant to be being held back for an attack in the Pas de Calais. When Patton moved to the front to take command of the Third Army, a very senior replacement was needed if the deception was to be kept up, and McNair was ideally suited to the role.

McNair was killed while observing the fighting in Normandy. He had moved to France to observe the start of Operation Cobra, the breakout from the beachhead. Unfortunately the operation began with a series of friend fire incidents during the massive air attacks on the German front line. On 23 July 1944 some of the bombers involved in the attack dropped their bombs too soon, hitting McNair’s observation post. He was killed in the attack, making him the highest ranking American officer killed during the war (although only by seniority – he was one of four lieutenant generals to be killed during the war,

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (7 December 2020), Lesley James McNair, 1883-1944 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_mcnair.html

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