The Second World War raged across massive areas and involved resources on a scale far above any war that had ever come before. Over 100 million soldiers were deployed, and more than 50 countries took part in one of the bloodiest chapters in human history. For six long years, men struggled to outfight, outlast, and outwit each other in a violent game of existence. Wars produce great men (and women), and among them great leaders and commanders. Some are veterans from previous wars, thrust into the fires of current wars, and some are born out of that fire, to fight in the current war and go on to the next. Here are seven of those leaders, the greatest and most talented generals that took to the stage of World War II, shaping its course through victory and defeat.
1. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
Born in 1887, Bernard Law Montgomery was a British general who served in the First World War and the Irish War of Independence before rising in prominence to become one of the most talented generals of World War II.
“Monty,” or “The Spartan General,” as he was known, was a cautious leader, driven primarily by concern for the lives of his men. In this, he was the complete opposite of the American general George Patton. Montgomery’s slow and methodical approach to warfare resulted from his experiences in the First World War where he had seen so many soldiers’ lives being wasted by poor planning and rash decisions. His style was steadfast, and his attitude was stubborn. Not even Churchill could persuade Montgomery to attack if he didn’t want to.
His rivalry with Patton, who had the favor of Eisenhower, was the cause of the only time Montgomery abandoned his signature style. Towards the end of the war, the Allied commanders were increasingly impressed by generals who were relentless in their advance and attacks. Montgomery decided to ditch his usual defensive posture and try to take more risks. Operation Market Garden was a pre-emptive attack on German positions in the Netherlands in September, 1944, and was a complete failure.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Nevertheless, Montgomery had already won his fame as the man who led the 8th Army and outwitted Erwin Rommel, ending German ambitions in North Africa. Although remembered as a cantankerous man who didn’t suffer fools, Montgomery was well-liked and respected by those under his command.
Although there are historians who debate Montgomery’s skills as a commander, it is clear that where slow and methodical approaches were needed, Field Marshal Montgomery was a talented general.
2. General George S. Patton
Without a doubt, George Patton was one of the most controversial figures of the Second World War. During the Sicilian campaign, he slapped two of his subordinates who were suffering from PTSD and ordered them both back to the frontlines.
Criticism from home was harsh, and Patton was relieved of duty for 11 months before Eisenhower decided that Patton’s drive and attitude would be needed in the campaign in Europe. Despite his controversy, he was popular with his men. He was seen as a soldier’s soldier, and was well respected by those under his command. As a result, he was able to achieve rapid advances through aggressive tactics. He was also a talented general who was able to think outside the box. During the Allied invasion of Sicily, Patton’s advance was extraordinarily fast due to the fact that the Americans had connections with the Sicilian mafia, who struck deals with those trying to oppose the American advance to stand aside.
General Patton battled through the Normandy Breakout campaign towards the French border with Germany. After, during the Lorraine campaign, his rivalry with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery came to a head when both generals and their armies ran out of fuel. Both petitioned Eisenhower, who decided to split the reserves, but prioritized Montgomery, who submitted plans for Operation Market Garden.
The German counter-offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge caused a severe problem for the Allied advance. Patton, who was stationed along the Saar River, was tasked with relieving the city of Bastogne. Given Patton’s troop disposition, it was an incredibly difficult task, yet he managed to divert 133,000 vehicles and six divisions from frontline combat during winter and wheeled them north to achieve their objective in short order. This logistical feat was surely one of the most incredible achievements of the Allied cause.
After Germany’s failed counter-offensive, the Allies went on the attack again and advanced into Germany. With his aggressive and speedy advance, even in the face of dogged resistance, Patton gained acclaim and the well-deserved nickname of “Old Blood and Guts.”
Patton was uniquely aggressive and competent, easily making him one of World War II’s most valuable and talented generals.
3. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel: The “Desert Fox”
No German general was as famed among the Allies as Erwin Rommel. He was so well respected that Field Marshal Montgomery had to remind his own troops to stop speaking about Rommel in such favorable terms.
This talented general rose to prominence during the campaign against France. At the Battle of Sedan, he led from the front, allowing him to get a better feel for the battle situation. He had an innate ability to sense opportunities, and with his natural skills in warfare, he would capitalize on these opportunities. When he took risks, he was very seldom wrong.
Rommel headed the Afrika Korps, which was formed to alleviate the pressure on the Italians in North Africa. Rommel sprung into action with such audacious and swift movements on the battlefield that his forces could even capture the Supreme British Commander General O’Connor. With his background as a tank commander, the North African desert was the perfect ground for Rommel’s tactics.
The fight for North Africa went back and forth, with Rommel outmaneuvering the Allied forces and inflicting inordinately high casualties, but eventually, the tide turned against the Germans. Supplies dried up as Hitler focused all his attention on the Soviet Union and left the Afrika Korps to fend for themselves, outnumbered and outgunned by the Allied armies. Rommel was later involved in the plot to kill Hitler, and upon this discovery, Rommel took his own life by poison.
4. Marshal Georgy Zhukov
During the Second World War, Georgy Zhukov was the most famous and most important Russian commander. Born to a farmer and a shoemaker in 1896, at the age of 19, he was conscripted into the military, serving in World War I and fighting for the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. From 1937-to 1939, Zhukov fought against the Japanese along the Mongolian-Manchurian border. He achieved stunning victories and was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. In 1941, just before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Zhukov was promoted to general and chief of general staff of the Red Army.
Zhukov successfully defended Moscow before organizing a counter-attack that pushed the Germans 60 to 150 miles from the city. He then helped draw up the plans for Operation Uranus – the encircling of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad. The plan was a complete success and turned the tide of the war. Zhukov then helped win the battle of Kursk and lifted the siege of Leningrad.
Georgy Zhukov spearheaded the Soviet offensive westwards, defeating the Germans at Seelow Heights and then encircling and defeating the Germans in Berlin to end the war. It is undeniable that Zhukov was a talented general with imagination and logistical skills instrumental in saving the Soviet Union and defeating Nazi Germany.
5. General Heinz Guderian
Heinz Wilhelm Guderian’s talents lay in his dynamic approach to warfare. He pioneered the “Blitzkrieg” tactics of using combined arms timed to complement each other during an attack to overwhelm the enemy with firepower. He also came up with the idea of using tanks en masse where previously they had been interspersed with infantry divisions to provide support.
One of his greatest achievements was during the battle for France. The Ardennes forest on the western edge of the Maginot Line was believed to be impenetrable and thus very lightly defended. Guderian proved the French wrong and showed talented generalship by advancing seven divisions comprising 1,112 tanks through the Ardennes, smashing through the French defenses, and spearheading the German troops that decisively defeated the French at the Battle of Sedan.
During the invasion of the Soviet Union, Guderian’s success continued, and his 2nd Panzer Army completed the encirclement of the Minsk pocket, which led to the capture of 300,000 Soviet troops. The 2nd Panzer Army then took part in the assault on Kyiv and assisted in the biggest encirclement in history, capturing 600,000 Soviet troops.
As the campaigns against the Soviets turned sour, Guderian was repositioned to more political matters, carrying out the orders of Hitler as well as advising on tank design. He suggested that the Germans build a direct copy of the Soviet T-34. On March 28, 1945, Heinz Guderian demonstrated extreme bravery in being the only General with the fortitude to engage in a shouting match with Hitler. The two had to be separated, and Guderian was relieved of command.
General Guderian and his staff surrendered on May 10, 1945. He co-operated fully with the allies, and although detained until 1948, he was released without trial. He died in 1954 at the age of 65.
6. General Douglas MacArthur
Raised in a military family in the American Old West and graduating as valedictorian at the West Texas Military Academy, Douglas MacArthur played a supremely important role as a General in the war against Japan. He was a dynamic leader who implemented groundbreaking tactical operations that saw the focus of military operations emphasizing the speed and mobility of amphibious and air forces operating over vast distances.
MacArthur served in the First World War, in which he became highly decorated and was promoted from major to colonel to brigadier general in a short space of time. He was nominated for the Medal of Honor twice, was awarded the Distinguished service cross once, and received the Silver Star seven times during his service on the Western Front.
Although suffering setbacks in the early stages of his contribution to World War II, being overwhelmed by the Japanese, MacArthur and his forces escaped and vowed to return to liberate the Philippines after successfully implementing a campaign of “island-hopping.” His strategy was to bypass main Japanese strongholds and attack weaker islands in order to gain a closer position to the Japanese home islands.
After the war, this talented general showed he was more than just a general. He oversaw the occupation of Japan and was instrumental in dismantling its military and restoring its economy.
7. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein
Fritz Erich Georg Eduard von Manstein was born into an aristocratic Prussian family in 1887. His military experience started at a young age when he served on both the Western and Eastern Fronts during the First World War.
His talent as a general shone through in the Second World War during the campaign to conquer France. Manstein came up with the plan to go around the prepared French defenses on the Maginot Line. Operation Sickle Cut saw the Germans achieve a stunning success by attacking France through the Low Countries and driving its main armored thrust through the Ardennes Forest.
After the success on the Western Front, General von Manstein was redeployed to the east for the invasion of the Soviet Union. He commanded the German forces during the Siege of Sevastopol, succeeding in breaking the defense of the naval base, one of the strongest fortifications in the world. Shortly after the fall of Sevastopol, von Manstein commanded the Axis forces defending against the Soviet counter-offensive on the Kerch Peninsula. The Soviet troops were completely crushed, and von Manstein racked up another decisive victory.
As Germany’s fortunes changed, von Manstein found himself fighting against impossible odds. He failed to relieve the Germans caught in the Stalingrad pocket, but many would argue that this task was impossible from the very start. Von Manstein later achieved success while German lines were collapsing all around him. At the Third Battle of Kharkov, he regained much territory for Germany, defeated three Soviet armies, and forced three others to retreat, but it was too little too late.
Perhaps Manstein could have changed German fortunes in the east, but his disagreements with Hitler’s conduct of the war saw him dismissed from office in March 1944. At such a crucial time for Nazi Germany, it was perhaps one of the greatest mistakes Hitler ever made. Von Manstein was an extremely talented general who could have changed the outcome of the war had Nazi leadership listened to him.
World War II was fought over huge parts of the world, with countless millions being involved and, in turn, large numbers of capable and talented generals were involved too. It is nigh impossible to list them all. There are undoubtedly more commanders that deserve to be on this list, but doing them all justice would require immensely more than a short article. However, the ones mentioned above had an undeniable impact on the war. They were the ones who determined its outcome, for good or ill.