Omar Nelson Bradley (1893-1981) rose to command the US 12th Army Group during the campaign in Europe in 1944-45, putting him in charge of more American combat troops than any other officer. He was famous for his concern for the GIs, but also made a number of controversial decisions.
Bradley was born on a small farm in Clark, Missouri, in 1893. He attended West Point, and graduated as part of the class of 1915, known as the ‘class the stars fell on’, after half of the graduates reached general rank. Bradley and Eisenhower were the most famous members of the class, and became close friends.
After graduating, Bradley didn’t get to see active service during the First World War. He spent four years teaching at West Point (1920-24), attended the Infantry School in 1925, and graduated first in his class at the Command and General Staff School in 1929. In 1929 he became an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, serving under Lt Colonel George Marshall, whose patronage played a major part in his later career. He returned to West Point as an instructor again in 1934-38. In February 1941 he was promoted to brigadier-general, and appointed as commander of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, replacing General Hodges.
In February 1942, as the army began to expand after Pearl Harbor, he was promoted to Major-General, and given command of the newly activated 82nd Infantry Division. He held this post until June 1942 when he took over the 28th Division, a National Guard based division from Pennsylvania that was suffering from a series of problems. Bradley successfully improved the division, and on 12 February 1943 Marshall informed him that he was about to be given command of a corps. However on the same day Eisenhower had picked Bradley from a list of possible candidates for a new post to investigate the performance of the US army in Tunisia, where it had not performed as well as expected. Bradley arrived in Algiers on 24 February 1943, marking the start of his combat career, after 32 years in the army! His first task was to examine the performance of General Fredendall during the battle of the Kasserine Pass, where Rommel had inflicted an embarrassing, if rather short lived, defeat on the Americans. On 7 March Bradley recommended that Fredendall should be replaced as commander of the 2nd Corps. On the following day Patton arrived to take over the post, taking a break from helping to plan the invasion of Sicily. Bradley served as Patton’s deputy, before replacing him as corps commander on 15 April 1943.
Bradley thus gained his first command experience as a corps commander during the final stages of the Tunisian campaign (similar to Eisenhower, whose first combat command had been Operation Torch). This campaign ended on 13 May, and on 2 June Bradley was promoted to Lieutenant-General. He retained command of 2nd Corps, which was allocated to Patton’s 7th Army for the invasion of Sicily. Bradley commanded the corps during that campaign, but was replaced by General Lucus soon after it finished on 10 July 1943.
Bradley now leapfrogged over Patton, to be given command of the US 1st Army, the US contribution to the D-Day landings. Patton had blotted his copy book in Sicily after twice slapping shell shocked soldiers in hospitals, undermining Eisenhower’s confidence in his abilities at just the wrong moment. Bradley was considered to be a capable soldier and less likely to make mistakes than Patton. The plan was for Bradley to command the US 1st Army under Montgomery during the D-Day landings and the initial battles in Normandy. Once there was enough space Patton’s 3rd Army would be activated, and Bradley would be promoted to command of the US 12th Army Group. Bradley set up his HQ at Bristol on 16 October 1943, and helped plan Operation Overlord.
On 1 August 1944 Patton took command of US 3rd Army and Bradley became commander of US 12th Army Group, which eventually contained 1.3 million men. It was a sign of the respect with which he was held that even Patton accepted his authority with good grace, despite having only recently been his superior. However the two men did clash from time to time, with Patton generally wanting a more aggressive approach and Bradley a more careful one. One example came in Brittany, where Patton wanted to dash west to Brest, while Bradley wanted a step-by-step advance along the north and south coasts, capturing each of the major ports one by one before attacking Brest.
Bradley commanded the 12th Army Group during the rest of the war – the advance across France, the first battles on the West Wall, the battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine and the advance into Germany.
Bradley made a number of controversial decisions during the campaign. The first came in the battle of the Falaise gap, when he ordered Patton’s 15th Corps to stop at Argentan because he didn’t want to risk an accidental clash with the Canadians fighting their way south. This left the mouth of the Falaise pocket open for longer than it should have been, and allowed a significant number of German troops to escape. He also supported the broad front approach (as did Eisenhower). His handling of the reaction to the German Ardennes offensive was also controversial, and Eisenhower decided to place the US troops north of the bulge, the First and Ninth Armies, under Montgomery’s command during the battle, as Bradley appeared to have lost control of events in the north. However Bradley did insist on Patton’s turn to the north, which played a major role in defeating the German attack (although Patton had already planned for that eventuality), and one of the main reasons for the change of command was that ‘bulge’ had got between Bradley’s HQ in the south and his armies in the north . Bradley was also responsible for the decision to attack into the Hurtgen Forest, a confused battle that caused many American casualties for little benefit. However he successfully commanded the largest combat force in US history and was an able subordinate to Eisenhower.
Bradley was unremarkable in appearance and un-flamboyant in style. He was known as the ‘GI’s General’ because of his concern for the well being of his men.
After the war he led the Veterans Administration until 1947. He served as chief of staff of the Army (1948-49) and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1949-53, during the Korean War. He was promoted to General of the Army in 1950. His first wife died in 1965, and he remarried in 1966. In 1975 he suffered a head injury that left him wheelchair bound, and he died on 8 April 1981 just after accepting an award.