Six Convergent Paths to Victory: #Reviewing Corps Commanders of the Bulge

Corps Commanders of the Bulge: Six American Generals and Victory in the Ardennes. Harold R. Winton. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007.

World War II is not without its exemplars of leadership across all levels of war: tactical, operational, and strategic. Volumes of text have examined the command styles of Eisenhower, Patton, Macarthur, and Bradley at the theater and field army command levels. Likewise, historians have tracked the experiences of companies of infantry soldiers and their non-commissioned officers, lieutenants, and captains. That said, a cursory examination of available  texts suggests most explore World War II leadership through a tactical or strategic lens, ignoring the operational level of war and its role as the link between strategic objectives and the battles needed to achieve them. At that level is the Army corps, the first true step out of the tactical realm within the Army force structure, and one few authors have taken the pains to examine. Standing in that gap is Dr. Harold R. Winton’s Corps Commanders of the Bulge, which covers with great detail the training, development, and battlefield execution of the six integral operational-level leaders who shaped the path to victory in this pivotal battle of World War II. Winton, a retired Army officer and Professor Emeritus of Military History and Theory at the Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, provides a multi-faceted account of the battle that was the largest American victory of the war. Moreover, this book is a highly-regarded analysis of the art of command through case studies of generals Leonard T. Gerow, Troy H. Middleton, Matthew B. Ridgway, John Millikin, Manton S. Eddy, and Lawton Collins.[1]

To understand how these men led their respective formations to victory in the Bulge, it is important to understand the context in which their attitudes on command were shaped. Winton opens his text by doing just that, outlining the nature of how the institutional Army underwent a significant transformation in the interwar period, a chapter he aptly titled “Toward an American Philosophy of Command.” Some, but not all, of the corps commanders cataloged by Winton were involved in some capacity in the World War I effort, yet Winton’s account of the career paths of these officers suggests all were in some way affected by the direction of officer development and education that came about between the wars. Winton outlines the varied progressions of assignments, training, promotions, and professional military education each received through their respective career paths. Through this analysis, he demonstrates that when looking for a model of a path to successful corps command, there was a “lack of an early common denominator and the existence of certain roughly congruent patterns.”[2] Essentially, there was no single recipe that led these men to the Bulge, as only three were United States  Military Academy graduates, yet all attended the Command and General Staff School. Further, all but one attended the Army War College. Of these six, five were infantrymen, as ⅔ of the corps commanders in WWII were. While all six previously commanded divisions, Gerow and Millikin did so prior to entering WWII, yet another dissimilitude that demonstrates the varied paths that led them to corps command.[3] With this background, and an overview of their respective careers leading up to December 15, 1944, Winton sets the stage for how each general would lead his corps through the Battle of the Bulge.

It is also important to understand the overall context of the war at the time, principally the conditions leading up to the battle. After the Normandy invasion, Germany was on its heels, and Hitler knew it would take an audacious effort to slow the Allied momentum. Seeing an opportunity to do this by striking the thinner Allied lines in the Ardennes, Hitler directed his senior officers to develop a plan to conduct an offensive engagement to take Antwerp.[4] Winton calls the Allied command to task for failing to see the coming German attack, pointing out that in this instance “the term ‘command failure’ is at least as apropos as the term ‘intelligence failure,’”[5] an argument especially relevant given the intelligence section of both First and Third Army correctly predicted in early December that the Germans would focus their efforts on the Ardennes. As the author states, the climate the commander sets determines the how bad news from intelligence officers is received. In these instances, it was not received  well, if at all.[6] Further, Winton assesses that at the command level, Eisenhower knew the risk, yet accepted it despite the likelihood of the German assault [7], thus setting the conditions the six corps commanders would encounter in the Ardennes.

This is a great point to highlight the depth of Winton’s analysis in Corps Commanders of the Bulge. While the focus of the book is on the corps commanders, Winton also covers in great detail the conduct of the battle itself, aptly framing the situation each general faced, not only on the battlefield but also within the politico-military sphere as well. With Winton’s depth of detail, the reader is provided ample background on the political, institutional, and military variables impacting the shape of the fight Gerow, Middleton, Ridgway, Milikin, Eddy, and Collins would each lead their formations through.

With that stage setting, Winton goes day by day, corps by corps through the Battle of the Bulge. While the V Corps stopped the German schwerpunkt dead in its proverbial and literal tracks in the initial days of the battle, the III, XII, and VIII Corps all had time to prepare and move into position, the results of all these events converging to create a response to the German offensive that allowed the Allied forces to prepare to retake the initiative from the Germans. Winton attributes this adept response to not only the doctrinal and institutional foundations of the American Army of the time, but more importantly to the able leadership of the  corps commanders in place at the Battle of the Bulge.[8]

Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, and Montgomery (Wikimedia)

From the initial response to the German assault, Winton shifts to the battle for the initiative across the Ardennes region. In the days leading up to Millikin’s III Corps counter-offensive that began on 22 December 1944, the Germans had certainly gained control of the initiative. As a result, there were widely varying views on the direction the fight should go, especially between Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Winton captures in depth these tensions at the highest levels of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), ultimately noting, “the final Allied plan for eliminating the Bulge was a compromise,” a necessary condition in Eisenhower’s mind to maintain the vital alliance between the American and British armies.[9] To that end, the Allied approach would be to send three corps (Millikin’s III Corps, Middleton’s VIII Corps, and Eddy’s XII Corps) to the south, and three to the north (Ridgway’s XVIII (Airborne) Corps, Collin’s VII Corps, and Gerow’s V Corps).

Winton leads the reader step by step through the series of engagements each corps commander faced, including the often difficult decisions they faced in order to be able to ensure victory. The best example of this art of leadership was Collins’ decision to go outside Montgomery’s intent by directing the 2nd Armored Division to attack the 2nd Panzer Division at a point when he saw the Germans as weak and failing.[10] While the fight was difficult due to weather and a determined German defense, it ultimately aided in drawing back Germany’s momentum. This is but one example of how Winton captures the abilities of these six commanders, their determination, courage, and care for their men. Corps Commanders of the Bulge is filled with such stories. Beyond the battle, Winton closes the account by cataloging the post-World War II paths of each leader, which further expands the context of the quality of leadership of these men.

World War II history is not lacking in case studies in leadership, and the Battle of the Bulge is certainly well documented. Despite this, Winton has managed to create a compelling account of both that breaks from the normal mold of battle analysis or leadership primer in a little studied area at the corps level of command. Instead, he weaves the two together through the lens of six of the Army’s finest operational leaders, and does so in a manner that engages the reader, irrespective of their knowledge of Word War II history.

What follows is an interview with the author of Corps Commanders of the Bulge: Six American Generals and Victory in the ArdennesHarold "Hal" Winton.

Steven Foster: There have been strikingly few texts devoted to the impact of the corps on the results of WWII. Why do you feel this level of command was often ignored by WWII historians?

Harold Winton: There are both general and specific reasons. The most general is that people in general, historians in general, and military historians in particular are fascinated by what happens at the top—the “great man” philosophy of history if you will—and by what happens at the bottom—“the masses are dominant” philosophy. There is not nearly as much interest about what happens in the middle, even though it is just as important as the top and the bottom. It is absolutely necessary to have military professionals who can translate higher intent into plans and plans into actions—at all levels. The particular answer is that the corps as it was constituted in WWII had no institutional continuity—it was merely a command node into which divisions and various combat support organizations were plugged for missions that were circumscribed by time and consequence. Absent an institutional identity, its history was obscured.

"Military historians in particular are what happens at the bottom." (Band of Brothers/

What led you to the “Corps Commanders of the Bulge”?

Several things. It began with repeated SAMS staff rides to the Ardennes, where my role changed slowly from being largely a learner to becoming decidedly a teacher. As I gathered material for the staff rides, particularly primary-source documents, I became fascinated with the size, complexity, and consequence of the campaign. Like many other historians, I started looking for holes in the literature; and it did not take me too long to discover the paucity of coverage at the corps level.

For students and practitioners of strategy, we often look to the past to see how the exemplars of strategic thought and leadership were developed. Given your deep experience in professional military education, do you feel that the shift in direction of PME during the interwar period was integral in preparing these men for what they would encounter in WWII? What can our PME institutions learn today from that the changes they made?

General John Pershing. General Headquarters, Chaumont France (Wikimedia)

Definitely. First, there was an ethos in the interwar Army that next to command, teaching in the professional education system was the most important thing an officer could do—precisely because it was there one could master the nuts and bolts of the profession, which would, perforce, make him a better commander. Thus, officers competed for the opportunity to teach. Second, Pershing realized coming out of WWI that Leavenworth had done a good job of training staff officers, but it had not done as good a job at educating commanders. Hence the name of the General Staff School was changed to the Command and General Staff School (CGSS), and the Army War College was directed to make the study of command a significant component of its curriculum. On the whole, the War College did better at this than did CGSS, but both made progress compared to the Pre-WWI period. In fact, as the book indicates, from studying the curriculum materials at both institutions, the historian can observe the Army developing an informal but operative philosophy of command—something it had never previously possessed.

The interwar period is the touchstone for many people’s analysis of how to do PME well. If you read the 1986 Skelton Report on PME, or even better, read the transcripts of Skelton’s hearings, you will find repeated references to the Army between the wars. The first thing we should learn from that experience is that PME is where you address—or should address—likely scenarios regarding the future of war. Where there is no vision, the people perish. The words come from the book of Proverbs, but they are definitely applicable in this setting. The second is that PME offers the single best place for a service to define its culture. The third is that wide-ranging, creative, critical thought is necessary for both of the previous enterprises. The fourth is that if you don’t put the very best people you can into the faculty, you won’t get very good results. And if you don’t have very good results, the service will be without vision—or with a very faulty vision; it will have a dysfunctional culture; and in the absence of broad, creative thinking, it will default to bureaucratic processes for dealing with its future. See the Prussians at Jena-Auerstadt for the likely results.

I understand you recently retired from your position at SAASS, and are following up Corps Commanders of the Bulge with a profile of the corps commanders in the Pacific. How is this research coming along, and do you see any parallels?

The writing is not progressing as well as I would like, but I remain committed to completing the work. The biggest parallel is that the Army corps commanders of the Pacific had roughly the same education in command that their European counterparts had. And in several campaigns (e.g., Leyte, Luzon, and Okinawa) they had roughly similar roles—commanding several divisions under the command of a field army with multiple corps. But there were also significant differences. They were generally older, reflecting MacArthur’s preference for age among his senior subordinates. The enemy they faced and the challenges of climate and topography they had to overcome were also vastly different. Finally, unlike the corps commanders of the European Theater of Operations in general and the Bulge in particular, they had no significant role in shaping the Post-WWII, Marshall-Eisenhower Army.

Many see military innovation as merely technological, though innovation in Army force structure and doctrine prior to WWII led to the changes that established the division and corps organizations that fought and won WWII. Do you see any room for this sort of innovation today, as we look to what the next war will look like and how our Army is currently structured?

As a general historical trend, changing organization has always been a key element of adapting to a new era. This has been true from the Greek phalanx, to the Roman legion, to Napoleon’s corps d’armée, to the U.S. Army’s triangular division of World War II and beyond, to its brigade-based structure of the early 21st century. I am no seer in this regard, but I think that both technology and education could allow even greater decentralization of execution in which smaller and smaller entities operate within the framework of a shared intent. But as van Creveld points out in Command in War, for this to work, senior commanders must be alive to what technology can do to them as well as what it can do for them.

What lessons of Corps Commanders do you think translate to the modern battlefield? Perhaps more specifically, has the inherently tactical nature of counterinsurgency muddied the strategic level waters of Corps commanders?

Because regular and irregular war (IW) have such distinct differences in grammar, though not in their basic logic, one has to conceptualize at a very broad level when approaching this issue. I think the basic attributes of command the Army developed in the interwar era—assumption of sole responsibility, strength of will, mental acuity, appreciation of terrain, care for subordinates, celerity of action, and ability to endure privation—still have much to commend them. But the one thing the interwar Army did not grasp was the need to stay attuned to changes in the ways war was being waged. So to this useful list, I would add Boyd’s concept of adaptability. When you move to the realm of IW, there is also a more pronounced requirement for the grasp of human dynamics and sensitivity to political requirements that extends to the level of the individual warrior. Another important change is that the division commander of today has roughly the same scope of responsibility as the corps commander of WWII, while corps commanders today frequently serve as operational-level commanders at sub-theater level. As an afterthought, I’d note that although IW is inherently tactical, it is not exclusively so. It has very important operational and strategic dimensions. Mao is very clear on this.

Are the commanders today filling the role of the six you profiled in your book whose leadership you admire?

I’m not going to bite on this very hard because I have not been following current operations in the kind of detail it would take to provide a well-supported answer. But in general I’ll say that operations in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime were disappointing, as were operations in Iraq after the fall of Baghdad. Misguided policy was, to my mind, the root cause of both; but in both cases I think the Army could and should have done a better job of execution. To go back to Question 3, much of the problem lay in inadequate education. Frank Kitson says that in a democratic society is the responsibility of soldiers to know how to make war in any of its forms. Our armed services seem to be able to educate about only one style of war at a time. When one is in, the other is out. We must start educating more broadly!

The six leaders you profiled were extraordinarily effective at a critical juncture. Was there something special about these men, or were they the inevitable result of the interwar institutional Army and the crucible of war?

Slightly more the latter than the former. Dennis Showalter, who penned the Foreword, picked up on this more than I did. He argues, I think accurately, that the Army’s education system of the interwar era was one of the important, if not the most important, reason for its ability to expand from just over a hundred thousand to several million in a little over two years and have a sufficiently rapid learning curve against a formidable foe when the shooting started. But having said this, three of the six—Middleton, Ridgway, and Collins—were extraordinary men who would have been standouts in any generation. So in this sense, the Army was indeed fortunate to have Middleton at Bastogne; Ridgway in command of the theater reserve; and Collins, Montgomery’s favorite American general, available from north of the penetration.

From your answers to our #MondayMusings questions, we know you’re a fan of Clausewitz and On War, and we understand you studied under Peter Paret at Stanford. We have some fans of Colonel Graham’s translation of On War among our readers (and among our editors). Why do you think Paret’s translation has so dominated the study of Clausewitz since its publication?

Because it represents the marriage of a brilliant mind deeply schooled in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Prussia with another brilliant mind fluent in German since birth and perhaps the most astute English-language observer of mid-late-twentieth century strategy. It could take another two or three generations for such capability to be focused on the task of translating On War from German to English.

As a long-time student and teacher of strategy what are some works you’d recommend aside from On War and the rest of the canon?

When teaching IW at SAASS, I was much taken by Stathis Kalyvas, The Logic of Violence in Civil War and Emile Simpson, War from the Ground Up. Although both are focused on IW, they share a profound understanding of the human dimension of war and an approach that places IW in the larger context of violent political activity.

What are you reading these days?

Apart from material related to Army Corps Commanders of the Pacific, nothing heavy. After being chained to the discipline of academe for thirty years, I’ve enjoyed relaxing a little. I found Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat absolutely enthralling; John Meacham’s biography of George H. W. Bush, Destiny and Power exhaustively researched and carefully drawn; and Charles Krauthammer’s Things That Matter profound and prescient. In fact, I’ve relaxed so much that I listened to the above on Audible—digitized audio books are a wonderful technology!

As someone intimate with both institutions, what do you see as the different strengths of the curricula at SAASS and SAMS?

Representative Ike Skelton speaks..(Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)

Each school does exactly what its parent institution asks of it. SAMS was born when the term operational art was entering the American lexicon. In fact, one can argue that SAMS was, by design, the midwife of this birthing process. If you dust off the student research projects from the School’s first five-six years, you will see an intense focus on operational art. SAASS, in its inaugural name of SAAS, came into being when the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Larry Welch, determined that the Air Force had lost its way strategically. The fact that Representative Ike Skelton had concluded the same thing about all the services, but particularly the Air Force, gave General Welch all the top cover he needed to establish a new school dedicated to strategic studies. Teaching operational art requires a blend of training and education, of application and contemplation. Teaching strategy requires mostly contemplation with just enough application to ensure that abstract ideas do not get too far removed from concrete realities. SAMS graduates officers who are knowledgeable and capable in the art of operations, and SAASS graduates officers who are broadly and deeply educated in strategic studies. SAMS may err slightly on the side of too little contemplation, and SAASS may err slightly on the side of too little application. But both these biases are built into the respective offerings for good reasons. As long as both schools continue to design their offerings to the objectives the Army and Air Force have set for them and to select students who are motivated to do the work, capable of doing the work, and possessed of a high degree of professional competence, the graduates will make up for whatever minor imperfections may exist in the curricula.

What question haven’t we asked?

Who will win the 2017 World Series. I yearn for it to be the Bronx Bombers!

Steven L. Foster is an Army Strategist currently assigned to United States Transportation Command, and is an Associate Editor at The Strategy Bridge. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.

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Header Image: Hard going for U.S. tanks at Amonines, Belgium, on the northern flank of the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945. (Getty Images)


[1] These men commanded V Corps, VIII Corps, XVIII (Airborne) Corps, III Corps, XII Corps, and VII Corps, respectively.

[2] Harold R. Winton, Corps Commanders of the Bulge: Six American Generals and Victory in the Ardennes (University Press of Kansas, 2007), 59.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 69.

[5] Ibid., 79.

[6] Ibid., 81-82.

[7] Ibid., 83.

[8] Ibid., 193.

[9] Ibid., 204-208.

[10] Ibid., 276.