The Ten Worst Generals of World War II

Sometimes the man in charge just shouldn’t be there. This is especially true in warfare, where a lousy general can lead to thousands of deaths. Sadly, many men in war become generals not because of their ability to strategize but because of who they knew, how they fought, or how long they had been in the military.

These ten men have been chosen as the worst generals of World War II. However, it is worth noting that not all of them were always bad generals or even immoral men. Some of them were cornered by even worse superiors. Some were old, tired, and shell-shocked. While we can include each in this list due to a single event, we should never forget the larger lives of those who fought and died.

1. Lloyd Fredendall

Lloyd Ralston Fredendall is best known for his failure at the Battle of Kasserine Pass, but his troops looked at him with disdain long before that. Fredenhall has been described as “one of the most inept senior officers to hold a high command during World War II,” partly due to his cowardice, poor communication, and willingness to retreat. 

When Eisenhower sent someone to the theater of war to see who was most responsible for the failure, Major General Harmon discovered that Fredenhall refused to speak to his superiors and actively ensured his next in command was not at briefings to show power. Eisenhower removed the general and sent him back to the States to oversee training.

Things did not go better at home. At first friendly with the press, Fredenhall blocked all communication with civilians after a sarcastic comment from a reporter. He became known as one of the primary reasons for the drop in the morale of reserve troops and quickly became the name officers would use to insult other incompetent peers. 

2. Maxime Weygand

General Maxime Weygand was a french military commander in World War One and Two. During the first war, he spent only 26 days on the front line before quickly becoming a staff officer well away from the action. There, Weygand quickly criticized other leaders, especially the British allies he was to work with. He also refused to work with translators, even though he could not speak much English himself. 

Between the Wars, Weygand went to Poland, expecting he would be given the power to lead troops against the Soviets. However, he soon laughed away upon arriving without any forces of his own.

In World War Two, Weygand made the fateful decision for which people would forever remember him. Given the position of command, after General Gamelin had failed to stop the German advancement into France, Weygand canceled any counter-attacks and spent the next two days visiting diplomats and the elite in Paris. His reply to this fiasco was to complain that he had been given power two weeks too late and that things would have been different in that scenario.

Once Germany took France, Weygand was put in a tough position. In a rare act of bravery and leadership, he refused to help Germans set up bases in France to fight the British. However, to protect himself, he still offered material supplies to be sent to Africa, including 1200 trucks and 1000 rounds of artillery ammunition. This “compromise” led to his arrest and imprisonment in Itter Castle until the war’s end when French officials detained him as a possible collaborator. He was eventually released in 1948 

3. Jay W. MacKelvie

For the short time that Jay MacKelvie was a general in charge of the 90th Division, which was to land at Utah Beach, he was scared, untested, and thoroughly unprepared. The division landed a few days after D-Day but was expected to be ready to fight. Instead, when Major General Lawton went to expect the troops, he found no battalion headquarters, no fighting, and no MacKelvie.

MacKelvie’s assistant later told Lawton that the general had been found in a foxhole, huddled up, refusing to come out. Under his lack of command, it took only six weeks for every original member of the 90th to be killed or wounded, and one battalion surrendered over 250 soldiers to just fifty German troops.

It is easy to empathize with MacKelvie. He had previously seen action on the front lines in World War One and was a part of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel. He received a Bronze Star, “Croix de Guerre with palm,” and Legion of Honour. While MacKelvie was perhaps one of the worst generals in the moment, he was generally a great leader and should be remembered as such.  

4. Arthur Percival

Like MacKelvie, Arthur Ernest Percival should be remembered for more than his failures. As a Captain in the Great War, he was hit by shrapnel, only to be returned to battle, where he led a counter-offensive that saved an entire unit from capture. Percival received the Croix de Guerre and Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and was made Major. He fought in the Russian Civil War between wars, where he served bravely again.

When sent to Malay in 1941, Percival recognized that he had been given inexperienced troops and few resources. Despite this, he still had close to 150 thousand men under his command and spent almost a year training them further. 

On 8 December 1941, the Japanese landed and were soon plowing through the jungles. By the middle of February, the British surrendered to a Japanese force that numbered only thirty thousand men at the start of the battle.

Percival was far from charismatic and easily swayed by his subordinates. Believing there was little chance of a significant attack, he spread his troops widely, making it difficult for any group of men to fight back.  Percival also failed to realize the importance of resources on morale, ignoring concerns by David J. Murnane, the Municipal Water Engineer, that they would run out of drinking water unless leaks were fixed. When they eventually ran out, morale plummeted, and Percival was left without the option of “bunkering down” and continuing the defense.

Percival was kept captive at the notorious Changi prison before being sent to Manchuria, where he was held with other VIP prisoners. Towards the end of the war, he was rescued by the OSS (precursor to the CIA) and eventually found himself standing in the room of the USS Missouri as the terms of Japanese surrender were signed.

5. Mark W. Clark

Almost the exact opposite of Percival, Mark W. Clark was a charismatic, ambitious general, the youngest to reach four stars in World War Two, and a friend of Eisenhower. After the war, he was seen as a helpful negotiator when dealing with the communists and later was nominated for the role of US emissary to the Holy See.

However, all evidence points to Mark W Clark being a woeful military strategist and leader.

Clark joined the army in 1913 at the age of 17. There he met Eisenhower, who he remained friends with for life. Clark was also known as a “smuggler of treats” and had a class ranking of 110 in a class of 139. On his second day on the front, he took shrapnel from German artillery, which made him unfit for combat. All evidence points to this being the first and last time that Clark experienced the violence of war.

Clark rose through the ranks in Supply, then Training Instructor, and deputy commander of the Civilian Conservation Corps before he found himself already a brigadier-general. His first genuine strategic efforts were in Operation Avalanche, which the allies barely won after sustained losses and his removal of multiple second-in-commands. For this, he received the DSC.

In an effort for glory, Clark is best known for ignoring his British superior and capturing Rome (which had no strategic value) rather than chasing down the German 10th Army, which had been forced back by allies. The 10th was able to rejoin German forces, strengthening their line. Clark also participated in the ill-fated “Battle of Rapido River,” which killed 150 allies and wounded a thousand more with no gains. 

In a petition for a congressional hearing, a veteran’s association wrote that it was necessary to “investigate the river Rapido fiasco and take the necessary steps to correct a military system that will permit an inefficient and inexperienced officer, such as General Mark W. Clark, in a high command to destroy the young manhood of this country and to prevent future soldiers being sacrificed wastefully and uselessly.”

Clark would go on to command UN forces in the Korean War mess, taking over from his friend and fellow West Point classmate Matthew Ridgway.

Without his charisma and the nepotism of friends, there is a good chance Mark W Clark would have safely remained a supply clerk instead of being responsible for thousands of needless deaths.

6. John P. Lucas

John Porter Lucas was the commander of Operation Shingle, a poorly-planned landing in Central Italy in 1944. There was very little German defense on the beachhead, and Lucas’ superiors fully expected any successful landing would be followed by advancement inward. If he had done so, Lucas would have been able to cut the supply lines to the German 10th Army.

Instead, Lucas remained on the beach. For days, he prepared defenses for a counter-attack that no one else expected. He waited so long that eventually, German forces could amass and surround the beach. Only then did Lucas give the order to move forward, directly into the waiting opposition. There were thousands of deaths. 

Of course, we should not look at Lucas too poorly. Yes, setting up defenses instead of advancing was a bad decision. Yes, he already lacked confidence after being given fewer resources than he wanted. But Lucas was a solid veteran of multiple wars, including the Battle of Columbus, where he single-handedly held off Villa’s raiders until support arrived. Lucas’s biggest mistake was listening to his commander’s advice to “not stick his neck out.” That commander was, of course, Mark W Clark.

7. Grigory Kulik

Grigory Ivanovich Kulik was chief of the Soviet Artillery Directorate. Unfortunately, he was also a man set in the ways of the past – he didn’t trust motorized artillery, tanks, or even machine guns. He was so against new technology that he would sometimes sabotage his own army.

When he was ordered to construct T-34 tanks, for example, he delayed production so poorly that most were not fitted with the ammunition they required, with only 12% of tanks taken into the field of battle with full armament.

A famous quote by the general was in response to the new Katyusha rockets. “What the hell do we need rocket artillery for? The main thing is the horse-drawn gun.” Yes, Kulik believed that horse-drawn canons would be better than the precursors to missiles.

In March 1942, Kulik was court-marshaled for his actions, and only his close ties to Stalin prevented him from being executed. Kulik’s “backward views” of war were not simple. War, to him, was about honor. For this reason, he also shunned minefields as “for cowards” and saved 150,000 enlisted Polish soldiers from being executed by Stalin during what would be known as the Katyn Massacre.

After the war, Kulik was careless in his criticisms of politicians and their “taking the credit for generals.” He was arrested in 1947 and executed for treason three years later.

8. Semyon Budyonny

Another close friend of Stalin and another commander struggling to keep up with the changes in modern warfare, Budyonny’s time as commander during World War Two was his most embarrassing. 

Before the war, Budyonny was a celebrated man. He had songs written about him, was one of the few to survive “the great purge,” and was as renowned as an amateur dancer as a brilliant strategist in the horse cavalry. However, Budyonny could never handle the idea that horses would have no place in new wars and was a significant force behind the arrest and execution of Mikhail Tukhachevsky, the innovative general who began the Soviet exploration into tanks.

Of course, Budyonny refused to embrace the new warfare, leading to many deaths. Given command of the Ukrainian front, his men were encircled by the Germans, and over 1.5 Million people died or were captured in the ensuing bloodbath. 

Despite his major failures, his loyalty to Stalin protected him. After the war, Budyonny was made Minister of Agriculture and was responsible for horse breeding. He created a new breed known for its endurance and eventually died of natural causes. 

9. Lev Mekhlis

While he did fight in the first World War, Lev Mekhlis was more politician than a commander. Before the second war, he was editor in chief of Pravda, Head of the Political Administration, and, at one time, Stalin’s personal secretary. He was very much in charge of “purging” institutions, armies, and universities of those who may have been critical of the Soviet empire. When sent to find out why the Russians were losing against Finland, he reported to Stalin that “treachery” was to blame, and had many military leaders killed.

In March 1942, Mekhlis was sent to the Crimean Front to organize its defense. This was the first time he was actually put in command of military decisions, but he could not get out of the process of blaming others and trying to “purge them.” When a small number of German forces were able to push back the Russians despite overwhelming forces, Mekhlis attempted to blame General Koslov.

Stalin replied:

“You, along with the commanding officers, will answer for failing to reinforce the left flank of the Front. […] you are squarely to blame. It seems that you still have not figured out that we sent you to the Crimean Front not as a government auditor but as a responsible representative of Stavka.

You demand that Kozlov be replaced, that even Hindenburg would be an improvement. Yet you know full well that Soviet reserves do not have anyone named Hindenburg. The situation in Crimea is not difficult to grasp, and you should be able to take care of it on your own.”

Despite returning to Russia and being demoted two ranks, Mekhlis somehow survived the ire of Stalin. By 1946, he was minister of government control and held this role until 1950. He received four separate “Orders of Lenin” and various other medals.

10. Rod Keller

Rodney Frederick Leopold Keller was put in command of Canadian forces who were to take Juno Beach on D-Day. He was popular with his subordinates, who appreciated how laid back he was. However, his superiors had a different impression: lazy, drunk, and often breaching security protocols.

The landing was a success. But the continued strain of command took its toll, with Keller becoming jumpy and paranoid. He even asked to resign, but the request was refused by General Symonds, who may be the person truly responsible for what happened next. 

Keller was to lead Operation Windsor, to capture an airfield and nearby town while other attacks were going on around Normandy. However, Keller delayed the attack by an entire week and initiated the second phase of his plan without checking to see if the initial assault was successful (it wasn’t). Twice as many allied soldiers died as Germans. One week later, the same division under different commanders was able to take both the airfield and town.

Shell-shock and ashamed, Keller fell apart and grew the reputation of being “yeller Keller.” His superiors refused to stand him down, and he was only removed from duty after being injured by friendly fire. It is unclear if the US bombing of Keller’s headquarters was the fault of either country or its commanders.

Conclusion

Some of the generals on this list deserve ridicule for believing in the horse’s power or being nepotistically promoted despite failure. However, we shouldn’t forget that some were simply “bad at the time.”

A good fighter is not always a good strategist, sometimes even generals need to obey the terrible commands of their superiors, and the very best of us would start to fall apart after our fourth or fifth war.

We should notice the biggest mistakes when we look at military conflict and violence history. Sometimes we can use these stories to recognize today’s leaders who should not be in such positions of power. However, placing responsibility entirely on the shoulders of a single man may not always be a good thing.

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