The worst generals in World War II transcend nationality, experience level, and the size of their commands. These bad generals blundered into defeats, hampered their own troops, disdained technical advances, and cracked under pressure time and time again. Whether Allied or Axis, this is a list of the worst World War II generals.
Many of these generals had their worst defeats when their countries were at their least prepared for war, such as the hapless Soviet generals who faced the German invasion of Russia in 1941. Others were experienced military men who should have known better than to take the risks they took – or not take the risks they should have. And a few were just not fit to command men in the field.
Here are some of the worst WWII generals and what they did that was so terrible. Vote up for the most terrible military commanders.
Facing Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps, Lloyd Fredendall was totally unsuited to the task of commanding American forces in the field. He was well-liked by superiors, but very hands-off in the field, and issued orders in an incomprehensible personal slang code. One order typical of Fredendall’s gibberish read: “Have your boss report to the French gentleman whose name begins with J at a place which begins with D which is five grid squares to the left of M.”
Beyond that, he infuriated Eisenhower by ordering an entire battalion to construct a giant command bunker 100 miles behind the front that he’d never have to leave. He left other commanders out of his decision-making process and had no grasp of how or where to position units to form a defensive line. The result was the US Army’s humiliating defeat at the Battle of Kasserine Pass. Soon after the battle, Eisenhower removed Fredendall from command.
After rapid German success in the invasion of France, General Gamelin was relieved of command of French forces. The position was given to another World War I hero, General Maxime Weygand. Weygand promptly cancelled the urgent counter-attack that Gamelin had planned, and spent the next 48 hours tending to courtesy visits with foreign dignitaries in Paris.
Those 48 hours allowed German infantry to catch up with their over-extended tanks, ending any chance France had of a successful counter-offensive. Weygand finally launched an attack, but the German position had become too strong for it to work. With hIS armed forces spent in fruitless, piecemeal attacks, Weygand became overwhelmed by defeatism. He ordered Paris left undefended, advocated for surrender, and became an ambivalent Nazi collaborator.
A callous and bumbling military Luddite, Marshall Kulik was given command of the Soviet Artillery Directorate, despite loathing tanks and motorized artillery. He disdained modern weapons like the machine gun, believed the battlefield would be forever ruled by horses, and meddled in the construction of the iconic T-34 tank by ordering it to be armed with an inferior cannon.
Kulik’s interference in industrial production ensured the Soviet army was totally unprepared when Germany invaded in June 1941, leading to horrific casualties. A totally ineffective field commander (his motto was “jail or medal”) Kulik was nonetheless put in charge of the Leningrad Front – and led it so poorly that the iconic city was surrounded almost immediately, leading to a three-year siege. Kulik somehow survived the war, but was arrested in a post-war purge, and shot in 1947.
Budyonny was one of the most decorated officers of the Soviet Army, but his reliance on old-style cavalry tactics made him totally unsuited for combat in World War II. In 1937, he denounced the most innovative tank officer in the Red Army, leading to his execution – and crippling Soviet tank tactics for years.
Later, he was given command of two Fronts in Ukraine and faced the brunt of the German invasion. Budyonny’s unimaginative orders, lack of understanding of mechanized warfare, and pointless wasting of troops allowed the Germans to make enormous progress. Between August and September of 1941, 43 Soviet divisions were either destroyed or captured – a staggering 700,000 men lost. It was a huge disaster, and so badly weakened the Red Army that Moscow was put at risk. Budyonny was relieved of command and held no role of importance the rest of the war.
General MacKelvie’s 90th Infantry Division landed at Utah Beach a few days after the initial D-Day landings, and within days had become bogged down and almost passive – despite the rapid gains American troops were making elsewhere.
As the story goes, MacKelvie’s assistant commander found the general cowering in a ditch during an enemy bombardment and berated him until he stood up. With the division losing so many infantry that it had a replacement rate of over 100%, MacKelvie was sacked after just five days in command – likely the quickest replacement of any American general in the war.
A decorated commander during World War I, Gamelin commanded France’s army on the eve of World War II. He believed the Maginot Line would keep Germany out of France, and they’d have to cut through Belgium – exactly like they did in WWI. Germany did indeed attack Belgium, but through the thick Ardennes Forest, which Gamelin ordered to be left virtually undefended.
Gamelin ordered his best troops into Belgium north of the main attack, and they stayed there for days, doing very little fighting. Meanwhile, German troops cut through the middle of France, attempting to reach the English Channel. Realizing his mistake, Gamelin ordered his troops to head south but inexplicably continued to delay on launching a full counter-attack. Having proven totally incapable of fighting the German invasion, Gamelin was sacked after just eight days of combat.
The commander of American forces invading Italy in September 1943, Clark dithered on breaking out after his initial landing, which nearly let the German’s push the Allied attack back. Then, in January 1944, in a glory-seeking effort to take the strategically critical ancient abbey Monte Cassino, he sent an under-strength infantry division on a dangerous river crossing against dug-in German defenses. Predictably, the division was nearly wiped out and Clark was the subject of a post-war Congressional inquiry.
Finally, Clark’s troops had the elite German 10th Army on the run after breaking out of the Anzio landing . But at that critical moment, Clark switched gears to capture Rome – despite it having no strategic value. Rome was taken with no resistance, and Clark rode in as a conqueror, but the bulk of the German force escaped, necessitating nearly another year of brutal combat – and 44,000 more Allied casualties.
A high-ranking political commissar responsible for enforcing proper Communist ideology, Mekhlis took his orders directly from Stalin. He was sent to the beleaguered Crimean Front to ensure discipline and combat defeatism, but what he actually did was cause chaos. He immediately started countermanding the orders of the Front’s commander, dismissed or arrested hundreds of soldiers for perceived infractions, and sapped the Front’s ability to organize a cogent defense.
When the Crimean Front finally launched its operation to liberate Crimea’s Kerch Peninsula, it was a total disaster. 170,000 Soviet troops and civilians were either killed or taken prisoner, with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces also being captured. Stalin blamed Mekhlis and his meddling for the catastrophe, and had his commissar demoted two steps.
As commander of the British forces in Malaya, Percival became party to the largest surrender in English history. He was given command of a large force that outnumbered the Japanese two-to-one, but it was poorly equipped and trained, with little air support and no tanks. Percival himself shunned the building of defensive works, fearing they would sap morale, and spread his forces far too thinly to launch a proper counter-attack.
Japan invaded Malaya an hour after attacking Pearl Harbor, and within a month, Percival’s force was in a panicked retreat back to Singapore, which fell weeks later. As a result, 130,000 British troops, including Percival, were taken captive. Malaya suffered horribly under Japanese occupation.
General Rupertus was commander of the 1st Marine Division when they assaulted the Japanese-held island Peleliu. Rupertus predicted the island would fall within 4 days, and sent his troops ashore with minimal water supplies. Instead, the battle was a horror show that dragged on for nearly 75 days.
The Marines were unprepared for the innovative tactics the Japanese were using and relied on what had worked in previous island invasions. But Rupertus stuck to his original plan even as casualties mounted, and withdrew tank support for a critical assault, mistakenly believing it wasn’t needed. The 1st Marine was pulled out after a month of vicious combat and was mauled so badly that it didn’t fight again for six months. Rupertus was pulled from command and soon died of a heart attack.
Pavlov was commander of the Soviet Western Front when the Germans invaded in June 1941. He had 45 divisions under his overall command, most of them untrained conscripts. In the shocking first days of the battle, Pavlov lost contact with his forward units, then ordered his men to carry out Stalin’s orders and attack in all directions.
Never a true believer in the role of tanks in warfare, Pavlov squandered his armor in wave after wave of frontal assaults against dug-in German guns. The critical cities of Minsk and Bialystock were both captured in gigantic cauldron battles, and of the 650,000 men under Pavlov’s command, less than 150,000 survived. Pavlov and a dozen other lesser generals were executed soon after.
Prasca was the military governor of conquered Albania when he was given command of Italy’s invasion of Greece in 1940. The general had personally promised that his small army could conquer Greece and take control of Athens in two weeks. The invasion kicked off in October but became bogged down immediately. Within three days, Prasca’s uncoordinated forces had to stop and then faced a vicious counter-attack by highly motivated Greek troops.
A week after the invasion, the Greeks had pushed deep into Italian-held Albania, and Prasca was replaced. The Greco-Italian War dragged on for three months until Mussolini convinced Hitler to intervene. The German invasion of Greece, in turn, delayed the German invasion of Russia – possibly changing the entire course of the war.
After three days of Lucas’ dithering, heavily armed German forces had surrounded the beachhead, and when Lucas finally ordered a breakout, his troops walked into a death trap. The Allied attack failed, thousands of casualties were logged, and the attempt to relieve the Allied slog through Italy turned into a slog itself. Lucas was replaced after one month and never held another major command.
Alan Walter Jones
Jones was commander of the US 106th Infantry, an inexperienced unit assigned to the guard the rural Ardennes Forrest. When Germany launched their desperate counterattack in December 1944, known as the Battle of the Bulge, the 106th was directly in its path. Jones had failed to act on signs of the attack, and his men were totally unprepared.
Two of his regiments, 6,000 men in all, surrendered almost immediately, in what was the largest mass surrender of the European Theater. Others were caught in a panicked retreat. With the battle almost lost, Jones is reputed to have hit rock bottom and remarked “I’m throwing in my chips,” indicating he was willing to concede the fight to the Germans. His superiors overruled him, the enemy was eventually pushed back, and Jones was sacked.
A fervent Japanese nationalist, Cho was a commander during the conquest of Nanking, and a number of historians believe it was Cho who gave the order for Japanese troops to begin massacring the residents of the city. The resultant Rape of Nanking resulted in as many as 300,000 Chinese being murdered, tortured, or sexually assaulted.
In 1944, he was sent to Okinawa to organize the defense of the island. While Cho masterminded the defensive tunnels built around the island, he also advocated for a swift and brutal counter-attack using rear-area troops in a massive charge, rather than the grinding, passive defense his men were trained for. The result was tens of thousands of deaths on both sides in close-quarters combat. Then, with the battle all but lost, Cho persuaded his commanding officer to launch a pointless counteroffensive, which completely failed. Cho committed ritual suicide in the final days of the battle.
Ernst Busch had been a capable field commander in the beginning of the war, but when given command of Germany’s Army Group Centre in May 1943, he crumbled. Over the next year, Busch became a cipher for Adolf Hitler’s contradictory and wasteful orders. He let his armored units be siphoned off for an offensive stroke that never happened, and when Hitler ordered individual positions defended to the last man, Busch only tepidly questioned these suicidal commands.
The Soviets launched their massive summer offensive of 1944 in June, and Busch was unable to keep ahead of the tactical situation. When his staff officers requested permission to retreat, Busch refused, citing Hitler’s orders. As a result, Army Group Centre became encircled and was destroyed. 300,000 Germans were killed or captured – likely the largest single defeat the German Army suffered in the war.
The commander of the Canadian division tasked with taking Juno Beach on D-Day, Keller had already lost the confidence of his superiors through his heavy drinking, carousing, and security breaches. Regardless, his troops made good progress in the early days of the invasion – though Keller was continuing to crack under the strain. He’d become so jumpy and nervous that he was branded with the stink of cowardice, with junior officers claiming “Keller was yeller.”
He then botched an attack on a key airfield, sending just one brigade when two were needed. With his mental health in question, Canadian commanders considered sacking Keller, only for him to be wounded in a friendly fire incident. Keller was pulled off the line, and never held command again.
While MacArthur has a reputation as one of the most innovative and courageous generals in US history, he also committed inexplicable blunders at multiple points in the war. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur was ordered to carry out pre-war attack plans on Japanese bases but gave no reply. As a result, Japanese planes immediately attacked, wiping out his air force. His thinly spaced and poorly supplied US and Filipino forces crumbled, and he was ordered to evacuate Manila with his command staff. 150,000 Allied troops had been killed, wounded or captured.
His bold conduct over the next four years gained him a justifiable reputation as a war hero. But he was also reckless, arrogant, careerist, saw his role as the occupational governor of Japan as a stepping-stone to running for president, and pardoned Japanese war criminals involved in human experimentation.
Graziani was a prominent Italian military commander, renowned for his loyalty to Mussolini, and for his brutal suppression of resistance in Ethiopia in 1937. But Graziani was humiliated in 1940 when he was ordered to invade Egypt, as his unprepared and overmatched force was nearly wiped out by a British counterattack.
He resigned in shame and held minor positions for the rest of the war. His support for Mussolini never wavered, and he was the only Italian marshal to stay in Il Duce’s corner after he was deposed.
One of the best-known German generals due to his role in the debacle at Stalingrad, von Paulus was caught in an impossible situation – and nearly always managed to do the wrong thing. Von Paulus’ troops were on the verge of taking the critical city from the Soviets, but he lost his nerve and decided to wait until the Volga River froze. This gave the Russians time to organize a massive counter-attack.
Once surrounded, von Paulus dithered on whether to stay and fight or have his troops break out of the pincer they were in – a direct violation of Hitler’s orders. Caught between his instinct to retreat and the constant flood of changing orders from Hitler, von Paulus simply stayed in Stalingrad, and his force was reduced over time. Eventually, 90,000 of his men were taken prisoner, and most never came home.