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Omar Bradley (1893-1981)
Bradley, who had distinguished himself leading troops to victories in North Africa and Sicily, was hand-picked by General Dwight Eisenhower to command the 1st U.S. Army during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. Under Bradley's direction, American forces liberated Paris, turned back an aggressive German counter-offensive at the Battle of the Bulge, took control of the first bridgehead over the Rhine River, and linked up with Soviet forces advancing from the east to drive the final nail into the Nazi coffin in 1945.
A native of Clark, Missouri, Bradley displayed an uncharacteristically mild temperament for a military leader. Newspaper accounts described him as a "quiet gentleman who might pass for a professor." His polite demeanor, however, was coupled with a demanding nature and the mind of a brilliant military tactician.
Following World War II, Bradley continued his military service as chief of staff of the U.S. Army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where he was promoted to the rank of five-star general. After retiring from active military duty, he became chairman of the board of the Bulova Watch Company.
Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969)
Prior to World War II, Dwight Eisenhower had resigned himself to finishing out a distinguished, but unremarkable military career. By 1943, however, he found himself serving as Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, Europe. "Ike" combined a talent for administration with an affable, yet commanding, personality that eventually placed him in positions of great power and responsibility, including leading the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.
Born in Denison, Texas, Eisenhower began his military career as a West Point graduate in 1915, and concluded it as Supreme Commander of NATO in 1952. In between, he served in various military positions and locations until the events of World War II brought him international acclaim. He parlayed his military legend into politics, serving as U.S. president from 1952 to 1960.
His battlefield experiences once led him to declare, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970)
As the Nazi began their invasion of France in 1940, Charles de Gaulle was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and placed in charge of the hastily-formed 4th Armored Division. With France on the verge of falling to Germany, de Gaulle pledged to never surrender to Nazi rule, even if it meant moving the government to another country. With the Nazis occupying Paris, de Gaulle broadcast appeals from London to his fellow countrymen to resist.
Throughout the war, de Gaulle labored at establishing close ties with the underground Resistance movement in France, while operating from North Africa. As the Allies planned their 1944 invasion of Europe, de Gaulle had come to represent the Free French movement. One week after the Allied victory on D-Day, de Gaulle returned to French soil, and triumphantly accompanied Allied troops as they liberated Paris on August 25, 1944.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945)
Perhaps the most notorious figure of the 20th century, Adolf Hitler was the leader of the German Nazi party and eventually became dictator over all of Germany. Shortly after assuming the title of German führer in 1934, Hitler moved to consolidate his rule by controlling the German people through carefully orchestrated propaganda campaigns. He abolished freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, and began a systematic program of persecutions climaxed by the murder of millions of Jews, gypsies, and political opponents.
Repudiating the conditions of the Versailles treaty that ended World War I, Hitler sought to expand the German empire. Beginning with the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, Hitler made bold military moves, and cunningly manipulated European leaders into accepting his advances. On September 1, 1939, determined to eventually conquer all of Europe and the Soviet Union, he ordered the invasion of Poland, thereby setting off World War II.
For the first two years of the war, Hitler's dream of domination of Europe seemed within his grasp. As the Allies began to rebound in 1943 however, Hitler became more desperate in his decision-making. His reign of terror came to an end in April 1945. With Soviet troops bearing down on Berlin, and American forces routing what remained of the German army in the surrounding areas, Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker.
Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976)
Montgomery, commonly referred to as "Monty," initially earned distinction during World War II due to his highly effective leadership of the British Eighth Army in North Africa. There, Montgomery was the first Allied general to inflict a decisive defeat upon the Axis forces when he drove them from their positions at El Alamein in northern Egypt.
On the heels of his North Africa success, Montgomery took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, and worked closely with U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower planning and implementing the D-Day invasion of France. In September 1944, Montgomery was made a field marshal -- the highest rank in the British Army.
The war was not all victories for Montgomery, however. He suffered his worst defeat in battle during his September 1944 attempt to cross the Rhine River at the Dutch city of Arnhem. Six thousand airborne Allied troops were lost in the failed effort.
Montgomery survived this setback, and in 1944, at the Battle of the Bulge, was given temporary command of all British and American forces on the north side of the bulging line. German troops in the Netherlands and northwest Germany surrendered to Montgomery on May 4, 1945.
Erwin Rommel (1891-1944)
Dubbed the "Desert Fox" for the skillful military campaigns he waged on behalf of the German military in North Africa, Erwin Rommel earned the grudging respect of even his adversaries.
At the start of World War II, Rommel was largely responsible for Adolf Hitler's personal safety as he sought to expand his Nazi empire. Despite the tactical brilliance Rommel displayed in North Africa, German advances there were halted in 1943. In January 1944, Rommel was made commander in chief of all German armies from the Netherlands to the Loire River.
In France, Rommel sought to fortify Nazi territory and prevent an Allied invasion. He was not successful. On June 6, 1944, while Rommel was in Germany celebrating his wife's birthday, the Allies landed at Normandy. Soon after, Rommel was seriously wounded when Allied aircraft strafed his motorcar. As a result, he was forced to return to Germany to recover.
While he was hospitalized, a failed attempt on Hitler's life was made. Rommel, a recent critic of Hitler's leadership, was implicated in the plot. Shortly thereafter, two German soldiers visited Rommel's sickbed. They offered him the unpleasant choice of committing suicide by ingesting poison pills or standing trial in what would most likely be a rigged and losing effort. Rommel chose the poison.