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WW II’s ‘Greatest Soldier’

WW II’s ‘Greatest Soldier’

Generals Omar Bradley, Terry Allen and Dwight EisenhowerGen. Terry de la Mesa Allen, B.A. 1912, had flunked out of West Point, accumulating more disciplinary demerits than any other cadet of his day. He was a maverick who disdained orders he felt would hinder his troops, and he didn’t hesitate to argue his point with the top brass, including Gen. Dwight Eisenhower. Allen’s commanding officer during World War II, Gen. Omar Bradley, called him “possibly the most difficult commander I had to handle during the war.” And like Gen. Ulysses S. Grant before him, Allen was sometimes decried as a “rip-roaring drunk.”

Yet he was also called the greatest American soldier of World War II by those who fought with him.

“There’s no question about who was the greatest soldier in the war — Terry Allen,” said Brig. Gen. John Corley, a 1938 graduate of West Point who served under Allen in North Africa and Sicily.

Brig. Gen. James Shelton has recalled that in the 1960s his superior, Gen. Don Clayman, called Gen. Ben Harrel one of the best soldiers he ever observed. Clayman then added, “There was only one other greater soldier: Terry Allen.”

Sir Harold Alexander, the British general who oversaw the Allied ground forces fighting in North Africa, had a low view of the fighting capacity and discipline of American soldiers, but he later said that Allen was “the finest division commander I have encountered in two [world] wars.”

The widely varying positive and negative evaluations of Gen. Allen’s performance reflect his complex personality. He combined a natural flamboyance and ability to command with a disdain for unnecessary protocol, a disarming honesty, a ferocious fighting spirit and a passion to spare the lives of as many of his men as possible.

Allen (1888–1969) was the only U.S. general in World War II to train and lead two different divisions, fighting units composed of 15,000 soldiers each. He first commanded the Army’s 1st Division — perhaps the most celebrated division in World War II, says CUA archivist Tim Meagher — as it spearheaded America’s successful 1942–43 campaigns against the Germans, Italians and Vichy French in North Africa and Sicily. Allen then trained and commanded the newly formed 104th Division — the Timberwolves — which rolled back the Germans from Belgium to the U.S. linkup with Soviet troops near Berlin.

After flunking out of West Point because of poor grades in math and gunnery, Allen earned his Catholic University bachelor’s degree in “letters” (a department that comprised English and the study of foreign languages). He then passed a military examination to get an officer’s commission, becoming a second lieutenant. In World War I, he led a battalion with distinction, and in 1932 the future Armed Forces chief of staff, George C. Marshall, noticed Allen’s charismatic leadership and marked him in his notebook as a future division commander and “a man who could enthuse subordinates to carry through almost-impossible tasks.”

If Allen was the greatest soldier of World War II, it was partly because he loved his troops so much, got the most out of them, and was loved by them in return. “Never in my life have I seen a man so worshipped as Terry was and [he] is not only loved by his men… but by every war correspondent who has ever come in contact with him,” wrote Quentin Reynolds, who covered the war for Colliers magazine. “As far as I am concerned, Terry Allen is the greatest leader of men and the greatest tactical general in our army.”

Although Allen was committed to victory, he did everything he could to spare his men’s lives, and his grateful troops recognized that fact.

“The soldier’s greatest nightmare is to think he is being sent up to death foolishly. Men didn’t feel that way under Allen,” said Kenneth T. Downs, one of Allen’s wartime aides, in a 1969 New York Times interview.

To save American lives, Allen pioneered the use of night warfare, which tended to result in a lower number of casualties in the attacking army. He would also detour around enemy-held towns in order to attack a main enemy stronghold farther ahead. This was a major innovation during World War II, when American military leaders routinely engaged in bloody slugfests for every enemy-held position rather than leaving bypassed and contained enemy forces to starve, according to Gerald Astor, author of a biography of Allen.

One night before an attack on a German position in Sicily, a reporter found Allen kneeling in prayer. The correspondent asked him if he was praying for the success of the campaign and Allen replied, “No, I’m praying that tonight there will be no unnecessary casualties; I’m praying that tonight no man’s life will be wasted.” A devout Catholic and devoted husband and father, he regularly prayed for his men.

Allen never asked the troops to do something he wasn’t willing to do, says Astor. Indeed, the CUA alumnus could often be found risking his life on the front line of combat — and he may have been the only general in the North African campaign who slept on the ground just like the GIs had to.

For a time, Allen was as famous in the United States as Gen. George S. Patton. Allen’s face appeared on the cover of the Aug. 9, 1943, Time magazine and no field commander received better press than he did, according to Astor.

Maj. Gen. Norman “Dutch” Cota, who was on Allen’s staff, attempted to explain the extraordinary affection of the soldiers (and reporters) for Allen: “It’s because he’s so damned honest.”

“Allen’s speech was picturesque,” elucidated the famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle of the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. “No writer could fully capture him on paper; because his talk was wonderfully profane it couldn’t be put down in black and white.”

“The general’s idiosyncrasies tickled his men,” according to Kenneth Downs, who served with Allen in North Africa and Europe. “He had a fine disdain for foreign names and rarely got anything less well known than Paris or Berlin straight. So the staffs learned early that they would have to keep up with his private glossary for place names. They had to know that ‘Weisenheimer-or-whatever-the-hell-they-call-it’ meant Weisweiler and … that “Boozy-Bar-or-whatever-the-hell-they-call it’ was an unpronounceable Arab town in Algeria and ‘Nicodemus’ was Nicosia, Sicily.”

Yet, Allen had his detractors. Although successful in the field and worshipped by his men, he was disheveled in appearance and didn’t enforce some of the protocols ordered by his superiors — such as making his troops wear their full wool uniforms and neckties in the North African heat. A documentary on the 1st Division has labeled him “not a team player.” And it was Leonard Mosley, in his biography of Gen. George C. Marshall, who called Allen — who never tried to hide his love for bourbon — a “rip-roaring drunk.”

Allen’s commanding officer, the teetotaling Gen. Omar Bradley, was almost his complete opposite, and it was Bradley who relieved Allen of his comand of the 1st Division in 1943. Their relationship was a combustible combination of “the abstemious, restrained, cerebral corps commander and the carousing, emotional, impetuous division commander,” writes Rick Atkinson in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943.

In the notes that Gen. Bradley made for his autobiography, he said of Allen that he had been “stubborn, hard to get him to do what one wanted him to. I had to suggest that our plans were his…Would agree to a plan and then go his own way. Administratively, 1st Division was always trouble… Hard to get Terry to put his pressure where I thought it should go. He would halfway agree and then it would never turn out that way. Possibly the most difficult commander I had to handle throughout the war. Inclined not to follow the letter of the order, had ideas of his own.”

But even Bradley’s own notes add that Allen’s division “had more esprit than others, and that counted for a lot,” that it was “good despite poor discipline,” and “who was the best div commander? Allen.”

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Revised: March 2006

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