Military History Q&A Series Q10

This is a partial continuation of the discussion on the Italian theater. Previously, Brett had asked what had happened during the Anzio landings; you can re-read Question 8.

Brett’s question: Also why did General Clark turn towards Rome instead of trapping the German army after the allies took montecasino?

Justin’s answer:

You’ve asked the one question about General Mark Clark that everyone wants answered too. Why did Clark order his forces to attack northwest towards Rome instead northeast to destroy the German army?


In Clark’s own words, he said he wanted the US Army to have the honor of entering Rome first. He was echoing what Patton did in Sicily; to have the US Army have the rightful honors of entering an enemy capital.


That is problematic because his boss, General Sir Harold Alexander, explicitly gave Rome and the western sector to the Americans anyway. In other words, on the issue of prestige, Clark had nothing to fight for; he was fighting for something that he already had in the first place!


Image of General Sir Harold Alexander

Second, the Germans declared Rome an ‘open city’. By laws of war dating back several centuries, if a city was declared an ‘open’ city, it meant the defenders will not contest the attackers, not even a token defense. The defenders will leave honorably and fight somewhere else. The defenders often do that for cities which are so hard to defend on grounds of terrain and maybe politics. On the flip side, the attackers were also honor bound NOT to attack it either or else it would be treated as dishonorable conduct. Anything bad that happens is automatically the fault of the attacker, not the defender. Practically for Clark, if the Germans won’t fight for Rome but would pull back further north, then he had no reason to go to Rome.


Third, part of Clark’s decision making might have come from a latent inferiority complex. The reason: he was the youngest army commanding general. Clark was younger than Patton, Bradley, Alexander, Monty… by at least ten years. Furthermore, his elevation to generalship bypassed men who were also his professional seniors; for a while, he was a lieutenant general while Patton and Bradley were still major generals. Clark was also well connected; he was good friends with Eisenhower. Clark’s flaw was that his confidence level was not enough for him to relieve older subordinates or make decisions without thinking of his ego.


Did that meant Clark should not have been in command? (Think of some of the boy and girl geniuses who at 9 years old already graduated high school. What would they feel when they step on a college campus for the first time at 11 yrs?) In terms of capabilities and experience, yes; he had proved himself in WW1 and the inter-war years. In terms of personality, and some of the character flaws, and the strikes against him as a younger senior commander, Clark might needed some more seasoning.  


I also think this is an issue of how the difference between tactics, operational science, and strategy.

What’s tactics? How you fight and maneuver.  

What’s strategy? Win the war. Usually that means capturing the enemy’s capital and reducing their will to fight.

What’s operational science? How you go about winning the war. Does that mean you maneuver your forces to take the capital or destroy the enemy army? Or is destroying the enemy army the end goal?


Clark muddled the two of the three. Sometimes capturing Rome might have worked… if the Italians were in the fight against the Allies but at this time, the Italians had either surrendered or switched sides. Sometimes destroying the German army was enough like the way the US took out the Iraqi army and air force, but not always.


In the end, we still won but could have cost less.

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