R.I.P. General Jacob Loucks Devers September 08, 1887 – October 15, 1979
The general who reached the Rheine even before Patton.
Jacob Loucks Devers (1887-1979) was not a battlefield commander and his name remains unknown to most people, partially because of the animosity Eisenhower felt toward him. Nevertheless, his decisions greatly influenced the outcome of World War II and when it comes to organization, he was one of the best generals of the war.
As a promising West Point student, he was very much into sports and was on the same polo team with George S. Patton, with whom he became close friends until he was promoted quicker than Patton, which put a dent in their friendship. After graduation, he served in the artillery branch and taught at West Point. He also coached the cadet basketball team, which included Eisenhower and Bradley.
He didn’t see action in World War I, but he became an ally of Douglas MacArthur, superintendent of West Point after the war, in trying to modernize the curriculum. He was responsible for many tactical and technical improvements to artillery which became vital in World War II. He was a major proponent of replacing horse-drawn guns with mechanized artillery.
In 1941 Devers was appointed Chief of the Armored Force. It was a compromise during a time of doctrinal debate: the infantry wanted slow tanks to support advances on foot, while the cavalry wanted quick vehicles to exploit breakthroughs. As an artilleryman, Devers had no dog in the fight. At the time, it was accepted that fighting enemy tanks should be a job for dedicated tank destroyers. Devers disagreed, claiming that “the weapon to best the tank is another tank.” History proved him right: most tanks were knocked out by other tanks, tank destroyers were usually employed as support fire and ceased to be an important idea after the war. Forcing his ideas across much resistance, he advocated the use of heavier guns and more powerful engines. His efforts culminated in the iconic M4 Sherman tank, which probably would never have seen service were it not for him. He also had Patton create the Desert Training Center in anticipation of operations in Africa, although the units trained there ended up never fighting in Africa.
He was also a great contributor to the development of combined arms doctrine, using translated German manuals in his work. He was also instrumental to the development of the M7 Priest self-propelled gun and the acclaimed DUKW amphibious truck.
In 1943 he took command of the European Theater of Operations following the death of the previous commander in a plane crash. At the time, Eisenhower was still commanding the North African Theater. During this period, he repeatedly rejected Eisenhower’s requests to divert bombers from Europe to Africa, a treatment Ike wasn’t used to, becoming one of the reasons for the poor relations between the two. Another reason for the animosity was their clashing personalities. Devers was used to speaking his mind and tackling problems head-on, quickly talking them through and cutting red tape. This didn’t go down well with Eisenhower, who wasn’t used to criticism, tended to brood over problems for a long while and cultivated much more gravitas. To add insult to injury, Devers had a face that look like he was always smiling or smirking, which already got him in trouble as a cadet and often rubbed his peers the wrong way.
In early 1944, Eisenhower returned to his command in Europe and was soon made Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Devers was sent to North Africa and the Mediterranean. During the brutal fight for the Abbey of Monte Cassino, Devers and USAAF General Ira C. Eaker put themselves closer to harm’s way than generals should get. Relying on the Germans’ tendency not to reveal their positions by firing on small planes, they personally scouted the structure from the air, their report leading to the leveling of the abbey by bombers.
Devers’ next big chance came with Operation Anvil (later Dragoon): the landing in Southern France shortly after the Normandy Invasion. For the purpose, Devers proposed establishing a whole new army group. Eisenhower consented, not because he necessarily saw the need but because this let him place all the Allied French forces into Devers’ 6th Army Group, allowing him not to have to deal with them any longer himself. Devers managed to get along with the French thanks, in no small part, to the help of French-speaking U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., who is probably the only Senator to have resigned his Senate seat so he could serve on the battlefield. Thus, Devers became one of the only three people who reported directly to Ike, the other two being General Bradley and Field Marshal Montgomery.
The 6th Army Group made speedy progress and reached the Rhine at Strasbourg in late November 1944, in advance of any other Allied unit, including Patton’s Third Army. Devers’ scouts reported that the German pillboxes on the far side were unmanned. He had bridge building equipment and so proposed a quick crossing into Germany but Eisenhower refused to grant permission, ordering him to attack enemy forces located elsewhere.
It’s hard to say what would have happened had Devers been allowed to cross the Rhine in late 1944. It’s possible that the Battle of the Bulge might have been pre-empted completely, the war brought to a much quicker end and Devers himself remembered as one of the great generals of the war.
None of that came to be. Instead, the war in Europe ground on for another half a year. For his part, Devers was sent into mandatory retirement in 1949 but not before he made one last major contribution to the U.S. military. In his last few years of service, he became an early proponent and adopter of military helicopters, his decisions leading to the creation Bell H-13 Sioux, one of the world’s most recognizable helicopters.